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A Bird’s Eye View: March 1, 2013

A ‘Snowbirder’ Gets His Fill

The beach across the road from my rented condo on Longboat Key, Florida is bird-rich. Some mornings there are a few hundred birds and I need to see them all to get my fill. Other mornings a few long, unusually close up views satisfy me. This year on Inauguration Day this ‘snowbirder’ got those unusual sightings.

The snowy egret, a 24-inch fish eater is nicknamed “golden slippers,” because of its black legs and bright yellow feet, which it uses to stir prey. Once hunted to near extinction for its plumes, it is now common in Florida. However, that isn’t the reason I feel like sitting down next to one that is standing on a lava-like rock. It’s because I usually see them foraging in shallow water where they are in almost constant motion and don’t welcome human company. This one has a leg pulled up, as birds do at rest. I want to see this lithe and elegant bird up close and won’t attempt to sit down next to it because that surely would scare it off.

Without binoculars I can see the brilliant white body feathers that look like freshly fallen snow on this warm Florida morning. I get a rare peek at its raised foot beneath the feathers. Then I walk away, not because I don’t want to disturb the bird, but because the snow is so achingly beautiful that I can’t stand to watch it for more than a short time.

There’s a splash in the water that is replaced by a wide flat area, a footprint of sorts, on the surface. A minute later a wet, glistening dark back and fin rises and slowly goes back under. This is a bottle-nosed dolphin, which are not uncommon here. It’s about 60-feet from shore and I walk quickly, trying to keep up, but the languid appearing dolphin easily outdistances me.

At the beach’s south end, the dolphin is now about 30-feet from shore which is as close as I’ve ever seen one. At times its back, fin and the small tail are visible. Once I see and hear the tail slap the water. Exciting! A young woman walks into the water then starts to swim toward the wild creature, which soon leaves. Later, further down the beach the dolphin is in very shallow water swimming parallel to shore and moves frighteningly quick as it goes under, hunting for fish and invertebrates. I’m amazed at the dolphin’s speed.

The last few days the beach has been littered with large dead fish, mullet that fishermen apparently have dumped overboard. Gulls, smaller shorebirds and occasional turkey vultures have been feeding on them. Sanderlings, who normally race after retreating waves for tiny morsels, have been pecking away after the gulls have opened up the carcasses. It is strange to see the sanderlings’ thin black bills glistening after they’ve swallowed some animal protein that hasn’t been plucked from the sand or taken from a shell. Ruddy turnstones, whose name derives from the fact that they walk the beach turning over shells, weed, leaves and literally anything in search of something to eat, are pecking at the fish, a departure from their daily diet.

There have also been about 15-20 herring gulls, which are uncommon here in winter, most of them brown, immature birds.  At 25-inches they are larger than the ring-billed gulls and laughing gulls that are common here. An immature gull  plucks a large fresh fish from the water, larger than its mouth can seemingly accommodate. Can this guy possibly swallow it? I’ve learned never to bet against a Gulf Coast bird swallowing such a fish whole.

The big brown bird takes the fish, part of whose tail and belly are yellow, to dry sand, letting the life go out of it. Then the herring gull throws it down and makes a failed attempt to swallow the fish, sand and all. The fish is taken back to the water where the gull attempts to lubricate it. Suddenly a ring-billed gull flies in and squares off with the herring gull for the prize. Not only is the herring gull larger but it appears crazed with determination. Just minutes ago its open mouth appeared to be contorted into a silent scream and the white of the bird’s eye ring appear to expand as the bird attempted to swallow the fish. The herring gull now snaps at the intruder. It’s no contest as the opportunist quickly flies off.

The big gull now probes and pounds the fish with its bill. The fish whose mouth is still open is held in the gull’s bill. Several times the gull puts the fish deep into its mouth, which won’t expand any further. The fish is thrown into the water for more lubrication and now placed back in the gull’s mouth and the big bird starts to walk. The end is near.

Another ring-billed gull appears, challenging the herring gull, but it too is quickly scared off. The big brown bird continues walking as the fish softens and become more malleable. The gull partially turns its back to me but I see the fish’s tail go in bit by bit. Then there’s a big swallow and a bulge in the gull’s throat. The bird dips it bill into the water and looks around as if to say “next.”

Birds can and will eat all morning but I’ve got to go, as my wife and I have a class to attend. Images of the snowy, the dolphin and the now full-bellied gull are packed like sardines in my head as I leave the beach. I’ve gotten my fill for this morning.