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A Bird's Eye View April 15, 2011

Juiced’ by Florida Wetlands’ Big Birds 

On a cool afternoon this past January I went birding with my wife and two close friends. We start in the heart of a Sarasota industrial park exploring a waterway, which attracts big birds. On one shore an anhinga, partially in shadow, has its black wings outstretched to dry, prominently displaying a white lined pattern on its back. Nicknamed the “water turkey,” the anhinga takes fish underwater. Their long straight necks, long bills, long straight-edged tails and silvery, white-lined back and wing pattern make anhingas striking. This lone bird’s brown hue suggests that it is probably immature. The anhinga’s dark mustard colored, webbed feet look like they are made from sturdy, Army-Navy store canvas. I’m “juiced,” as I rarely see an anhinga. 

Walking along a high ridge that allows us to look down at the water, we scan some tall trees that line the opposite bank. Slowly, eight perching anhingas, partially hidden by shade, appear. It’s a magic show with the birds coming to light as we scan. There’s a male, which is all black with the silvery, white lined pattern on its back. Some females offer a sedate contrast to the striking male. Their heads, necks and breasts are buffy while the black body also has the silvery, white lined wing pattern. Ying and yang. To our delight, I’m able to get them in my hi-powered birding scope where they are vivid. I’m especially juiced as I’ve never before seen more than one anhinga in any spot. This accidental find is a genuine moment of discovery as later reading a field guide, I learn that these birds roost in trees over water and are sometimes found in small groups. Without realizing it we are seeing a textbook example of their lives in the wild.

A great blue heron flies from the shore below the trees to another, while a moorhen swims, its bright red bill showing in the sun. A lone anhinga flies over the water. It flies fast and seems to have excellent agility. There are lots of cormorants flying and one of them comes down, its legs hanging, then drags them in the water and comes to a halt. The cormorant, which also takes fish underwater, is smaller than its 35-inch cousin the anhinga by two inches but has a longer wingspan. However this bird does not “juice” me, as I see it every day.

A mile away at the Celery Fields, 300 acres of wetlands that are undergoing extensive renovation, we see a huge irrigated area lined with aquatic plants and grasses and tons of birds. Last winter this was little more than mud with sparse avian life. Now it’s almost unrecognizable. Walking along a road lined with a wooden fence, we see a variety of feeding shorebirds and lean, rusty-colored female boat-tailed grackles. With the late afternoon sun lowering, my eye falls on two large gray shapes amidst aquatic plants in smooth-as-glass water. They are feeding sandhill cranes. Their bulky bodies belie their small red-capped heads. With the grace of a geisha, they move slowly, elegantly on long legs in a scene that resembles a Japanese painting. 

In back of them is an island on which are the large forms of two great blue herons. One flies off on long, languidly flapping wings into the fast approaching dusk. As we walk along a curve in the road, on the far side of the island are a dozen wood storks all facing the same way. These large white birds with long dark down-curved bills, black necks and knobby heads are all looking in the same direction and seem to be at peace. For these birds, which are on the endangered species list, it’s a moment of serenity and security as they aren’t in diminished wetlands but in a river of life. 

But this moment belongs to the sandhill cranes. Sundown at the Celery Fields,  which is their theatrical stage, is when they fly in and land in the water. The two sandhills that I saw before make the announcement. One opens its bill and calls out a guttural series of short notes. The other lets out a series of higher, longer and louder sounds. It’s showtime. On the right, two come flying in, one carrying a stick in its bill. Their landing approach is graceful and smooth, as they let down their legs, like a jumbo jet does its landing gear. They hit the water running, looking anything but graceful. On the left, coming from the opposite direction come three more. Now the fast flying cranes have the look that I call gray magic. They appear out of nowhere with extended, slightly dipped necks and splayed wing tips. Gradually they go into a tight curve, cupping their wings slightly, looking like parachutes as they make their final descent. In the shallow water they join others and soon two are jumping up and down, seemingly floating as they do, in what may be a courtship display.

From in back of us and low, come 13 more sandhills slanting down toward the waiting water. Their full gray bodies remind me of a freight train going downhill. My wife points out three standing directly in front of us. Where? Literally right in front, she says, pointing. Oh yeah! Walking off the road and toward a slight ditch where there is tall bone-colored grass, two more fast flying sandhills come overhead traveling at an upward angle. It’s like being in a public television nature program.

With the sun now set there’s an orange hue in the air along with the beginning of twilight. As we drive off, three groups numbering 20 or more come flying in. Is this the last call? I don’t know. How many cranes did we see? Who knows? Three to four dozen, probably. Who cares? I’m still “juiced“ from an afternoon of big birds in the Florida wetlands.