Opinion
"And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks;
Sunday mornin' comin' down."
-Sunday Morning Coming Down
sung by Kris Kristofferson

Longboat Key, FL - It was early Sunday morning when I got out to Whitney Beach on Longboat Key where my wife and I are spending our fourth winter. I came back three and a half hours later having birded in the spiritual isolation of a beach in fog. Much of the time the words to an old, and beautifully mournful Kris Kristofferson song played in my head.

The tide is low in the Gulf of Mexico, only two people are out and they are looking for shells. I walk in shallow water with ripples of light dancing on its surface. Tidal ridges of hard sand feel good beneath my feet. A huge flock of gulls and terns rises above the blue water and a mauve sky.

There's a ring-billed gull seemingly yawning. A sleepy Sunday morning. Scanning the flock, now on the sand, with binoculars there's an endless array of shades and textures of gray feathers and lines where bright summer plumages have turned winter dull. I sit down on hard, bone white sand to record my impressions. That's when the first laughing gull flies in close to me. It is quickly followed by more and a number of gentler ring-bills. Get lost guys I silently say, getting to my feet. I'm not a food source.

On Beer Can Island, which is actually an extension of the beach, fog is coming in. My light sensitive eyes allow me to see better in it than in the sun. There's a mature yellow-crowned night-heron standing still in the smooth-as-glass water of a lagoon. The bird's gray back looks as if an artist's finest brush has drawn grooved black lines on it. I carefully move to a spot where I have a direct, relatively close view of the bird's profile. It is as close as I can get without risking frightening off the heron. It turns and looks directly at me for a while. It's just the heron and me, there's no one else here. Splendid isolation.

Out on the Gulf are the faint sounds of some starlings and the gentle din of waves. A sleek Forster's tern comes by propelling itself as if its wings were on ball joints. Watching intently it's as if I'm momentarily up there with it. Across the Gulf on nearby Anna Maria Island, tall Australian pines are beginning to be obscured in fog, as is the Longboat Pass Bridge.

Back at the lagoon there's an immature yellow-crowned night heron, the offspring of an adult that was here before. The adult is now in the low water beneath the mangroves keeping an eye on junior who is out walking near a low tidal sandbar. The only way to distinguish the juvenile from that background is its overall darker color, shape and slow movement. The juvenile picks up something and moves it side to side in his bill with its mandibles spread. Gingerly it eats. The immature bird's long neck and breast are a dull white streaked with brown. There's reddish sandstone on its back and wings. The juvenile is a marvel of shades of color that are changing minute-by-minute, day-by-day until it will have its parents' colors. The heron runs a few feet. Why? A mature great egret has come very close. Good survival instincts.

It's getting breezy and too cold to be standing here. I go back to the beach and find a resident osprey. It is also an immature bird and doesn't have a mate. High in a ravaged ash colored tree the osprey holds a fish whose forked tail hangs lifelessly over a branch. Black manacled claws hold the fish, as the bird that is called the fish-hawk vigorously tears and twists pieces of tough flesh from its body. The osprey's brown is the color of bitter chocolate. Gone are the bird's delicacy of color and the texture of its feathers that would be visible in bright sun. The raptor lifts up its wings, shakes them and twitches its dark horizontal striped tail side to side. The raptor partially raises its folded wings from its body as if it may fly, but quickly begins again to feed.

Out on the beach a lone fisherman carefully unhooks a small broad, flat fish. He then gently tosses it on the sand in front of a colorful great blue heron with breeding plumes. The almost four-foot bird picks up the fish holding it crosswise in its yellow bill. Soon the silvery fish stops flapping and it's swallowed. Walking out to the bridge and standing by its pilings I look across Sarasota Bay to Jewfish Island, which has a line of a hundred brown pelicans on its narrow beach. What are they waiting for? Minutes later a fishing boat with its wake trailing is slowly headed to a channel near where the island's Australian pines are vanishing in the fog. Another kind of splendid isolation.

Beer Can's tip is a wide curve of bone, white, tan and dark sand that seems to stretch into eternity. As I start walking home the words to the beautifully mournful Kristofferson song seem to spill out of my head into the foggy morning, freezing the scene in my mind's eye. The beach has created a mood that I wish I could bottle. That night I woke up mouthing the words and in my mind's eye I could still see the foggy beach.


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