Longboat Key, Florida - The eye of the bird near a tidal lagoon is a wide burnished yellow with a black center and an unwavering gaze. I can't help but stare at it. The bill is longer and has a greater area of black than it appears from a distance. It is the reddish egret, an uncommon bird that has a loopy style of hunting aquatic prey, which people sometimes describe as drunken. It runs, flies short distances, sometimes with wings raised or with its neck stretched slightly to the side and its head tilted across its body. I've just watched the bird hunt from a distance for 35 minutes in an adjacent lagoon on Beer Can Island, which is actually a peninsula at northernmost tip of Longboat Key where my wife and I are spending our fourth winter. Now the egret's right leg is raised and hidden in its body while it rests. I can hardly believe it but I've got a chance to see the reddish egret up close.
The egret has a gray body, a washed out mauve neck and head, and a javelin-like black and pink bill that reminds me of the Good & Plenty candy box. In back of the egret the water is a pale clear blue. It's like looking into eternity. This compact 30-inch bird was once on eternity's doorstep, having been hunted nearly to extinction for its elegant plumes in the early 20th century. There are 2,000 pairs in the country, 400 of which are in Florida where it is strictly a coastal wetlands bird. Just seeing the reddish egret excites me. Wanting to get as close to it as possible, to note every detail, to get to know the bird, I drop my water bottle and fixing my eyes solely on the egret, take a first small step.
I move from 35 feet to 30 feet. I don't know how close I can get. However I'll know if I come too close. The bird will fly. And that's what I don't want to happen.
High in its nest in a nearby Australian pine tree a great blue has its wings spread out to dry. Stylish. By contrast the egret's neck and head feathers, which appear long and unkempt, take on a dull golden hue as they dry. A fish leaps from the water sending out ripples. Why not just send a text message "come and get me?"
Having inched my way to less than 20 feet, the bird twitches its head. The sun is warm and I'm thirsty. Slowly getting up and retrieving my water bottle I carefully resume my spot. The bird again twitches its head. The words don't scare it off, ring in my head. Now at 15 feet I wonder where is this guy's tipping point? How close did the plume hunters come that nearly killed off this species? Or did they just fill the air with gunshot? The egret's throat is moving in and out, and then it stops. Some white ibises flying over the mangroves have the bird's attention.
A bird, no matter how uncommon, doing nothing eventually becomes boring. It's boring. I'm tempted to leave but when will I ever get this chance again? Just then a breeze kicks up moving some of its feathers. Sitting in the sand, watching with the naked eye, I've got a view that most birders would love to have. Now I've inched my way to perhaps 10 feet from it. How much further can I go without scaring it? Leave, you've already gotten closer than you could have dreamed possible says a silent voice in my head.
A tail twitching white ibis freezes me. It is fishing the shoreline close to the egret. Will it approach the egret? The reddish egret now slowly drops its raised leg to the sand. Checking me out, the ibis moves past the egret. It dips that curved orange bill into the water feeding just a few feet from the egret that preens its breast. The sun is baking me and I pull my outer shirt over my head. The spot where the egret stood is now empty! Getting up I walk over to where it stood which is marked by the bird's small footprints. I guesstimate that I was 12 to 13 feet from it when the egret flew.
Rebuking myself for scaring it off I see that the egret is just a short way down the shoreline. In seconds the bird walks into the water gently lifting off and slowly flying a short distance to the mangroves. There it looks around and goes into a space where it is obfuscated by greenery. Then the safety of the mangroves envelops eternity's bird. This is where its nest must be.
Looking at my watch I've been here exactly 40 minutes. It was the best individual birding that I've ever done, requiring stealth and patience, the latter, which in the end, I didn't have enough of. By removing my shirt I probably annoyed the egret. I didn't want to scare the bird off but I also didn't want to leave. Unconsciously I may have engineered a solution where I accidentally annoyed the egret, which may have been ready to leave anyway.
Walking out to the beach where huge ravaged trees and the strong surf make for a rugged setting, the scene oddly feels tame. Down the beach a willet flies past me landing in the wet sand holding a morsel in its bill. Ordinarily I'd be curious but I've passed a threshold watching the egret that makes this elegant bird seem ordinary. Walking home I still see the initial look of the egret's unwavering eye and the thrill it brought. Indeed I'm surprised that given its history of near extinction, eternity's bird tolerated my proximity for such a long time. I won't soon forget it.