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Gulf’s Bounty Fills Birds Bellies

At the far end of Whitney Beach on Longboat Key, Florida, are 80 shorebirds: 25 ruddy turnstones and almost all of the rest are red knots. While I’m used to seeing the knots in large numbers, I’ve never seen so many turnstones in one place. Scurrying along the sand as waves from the Gulf of Mexico recede, the birds plunge their small, dark bills deeply into the wet sand, which come up glistening. They feed on mollusks, crustaceans, tiny shells and other aquatic life brought in by the waves.

There is a dividing of real estate among the birds with most of the knots probing soaking wet sand, and many of the turnstones combing the dryer ground. One of the knots, largest of the North American “peeps,” has its bill open like a pair of tiny chopsticks holding a small white shell. It quickly disappears into the bird’s mouth and on toward its sinewy stomach in which it will be crushed. The turnstones who are a rusty brown, black and white with red legs are eye-catching. Even in their dull winter plumage they are unmistakably vivid.

Beachcombers, they walk the sands turning over stones, shells, and leaves, anything that may yield a mouthful. One carries tiny, twin clamshells to higher ground, drops them on the sand and whacks the halves several times with its dark bill faster than my eyes can follow and runs off like a speedball. Only it knows if there was a morsel in there. At the water’s edge there are a few disputes between the smaller turnstones and the larger knots that end with the latter running away.

The sea has left dead fish on the beach due to the unusual January cold. Some are eyeless, birds having gotten to them, but others aren’t. Those eyes are the hardest at which to look because they suggest the agony of the fish dying. One short flat-bottomed fish lies on the sand with a pulsating gill. There’s no doubt that it’s still alive. Poor creature.

The ring-billed gull is so named because its yellow bill has a black “ring” near the tip. One has the forked tail of a fish sticking out of its slightly open bill. Until now I haven’t seen any of the gulls or terns that flock here eat dead fish. No other bird, except an occasional sandpiper, will touch them. This is a surprise to me as the ring-bills are even-tempered if not gentle. The bird comically looks as if it has bitten off more than it can chew. The side of its bill is a thin red line, which is the inside of the bird’s mouth. Watching me watch it, the gull suddenly turns toward the white caps and flies away. But to where?

At the water’s edge an immature ring-bill has gotten into the guts of a whiskered fish despite its tough skin. The gull pulls hard and comes away with a long entrail that hangs in the wet sand. The ring-bill’s pale reflection follows it as the bird dips the intestine in the water and walks around, little by little, swallowing it. A butcher’s throwaways are its delicacy.

Another ring-bill, a mature one, is making mincemeat of a lustrous blue/gray fish. The bird has gotten into the fleshy part of the body, which is getting thinner by the second as pieces disappear into its bill. The ring-bill pulls its neck into its body and then stretches its head and neck toward the sky letting out a loud, shrieking cry. However, suddenly it has competition from another ring-bill. While it’s fending off the gull, a sanderling seizes the opportunity to have a go at the fish with its short straight bill. A wave comes in taking the remains of the fish out to sea quickly, end over end as if there was life left in it. Another wave deposits the fish back on shore and the ring-bill quickly, tenaciously grabs it and walks off.

While turnstones, red knots and gulls feed at the water’s edge, ospreys pluck fish from the water. There’s a dark, mature one patrolling an area of the sea, just off shore that has been fish rich lately. Watching a hunting osprey in flight is to experience the bird’s mystery starting with the complex design on its under wings. The “fish-hawk’s” body illuminated by the morning sun is cream-colored with a hint of yellow at the base of its tail. As the raptor hangs a left, belly toward the sun, its under parts turns the color of tea. The osprey goes further out beginning its dive, first turning left, then right as if it were on an invisible downward escalator. As the osprey gets lower its fearsome facial “mustache” comes into view. Then the raptor crashes down between two white caps and comes up carrying something.

There are two bandits, perhaps laughing gulls, chasing the osprey. Do they want the fish? One gets really close to the osprey and flies just over its head, then breaks off the chase. This looks like a territorial dispute, not thievery. As it comes closer I can see that the osprey isn’t carrying a silver fish torpedo-like in its talons. It seems to have a very long one that hangs like a snake. Who knows what it’s carrying? Now the “fish-hawk” starts out over the water. Is he kiddin? Where’s he going to eat anything out there? As the bird climbs higher I’m momentarily smitten by the background of bright blue sky and wispy clouds. Osprey poetry. Slowly it disappears down the beach probably to an empty tree branch where it will have its breakfast. The sea, the bird’s carryout, has been good to Longboat Key’s avian residents this morning.