Opinion

Longboat Key, Florida - Reddish egrets don't actually dance. These birds have a unique style of movement as they hunt fish and other aquatic morsels in shallow water. It is a combination of lurching, zigzag, or a drunken looking movement, which I refer to as loopy. This "dance," which I've been fortunate enough to closely watch, is a window into understanding bird locomotion.

The reddish egret is primarily a Gulf Coast bird and is Florida's least common heron. It was nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th century along with other birds for their plumes. Its comeback in Florida has been very slow. Currently in the U.S. there are about 2,000 pairs. The egrets have a dark form and a white form. In its dark morph, which is what I've seen it in, the egret's head and neck are a faded brownish pink and its body a light gray. This bird has an unkempt, slightly comic, washed-out appearance, as if it has spent too much time in the sun. According to one scholarly source the nuptial plumes of the egrets' white morph probably made them especially attractive to plume hunters. For too many egrets their beauty was a death sentence.

I've seen this uncommon bird four times, each time by salt water, all on Longboat Key. The first time was at an eco system park last winter while it was hunting in Sarasota Bay. The bird trotted six-seven steps in the shallow water with its elongated neck bent down and its wings raised or cupped. Its nearly 4-foot wingspan is eye-catching. The reddish gets a tiny, wriggling silver fish in its bill and down goes the fish. The long straight bill is pink at the base but black at the tip and looks like the colors of the Good and Plenty candy box. It does the six-seven-step trot again, this time with wings fully raised, and a yellow eye riveted to the water. The egret comes up with another diminutive fish this time with a strand of weed and some muck. That's the price of hunting.

As it looks around, the egret's bill is parallel to small swells that lap some pilings. There is the faintest splash of the egret in the water not far from where I'm standing. We are the only ones here and the egret shows no sign of being bothered by me. I'm starting to know this uncommon bird. Soon it walks behind some mangroves momentarily disappearing. There it is again hugging the reeds doing its loopy dance. When the bird is almost out of sight two fish leap from the water as if to say, "hey he's gone, it's ok." The egret is now trotting. Another fish, this one black and silver, leaps. "Hey, guy" I silently yell to the egret " food's over here! "But it flies a few feet and plucks something from the bay, shaking its head after swallowing, then disappears. I've gotten a good idea of what the egret's dance looks like but I want to study its individual moves.

That opportunity comes two weeks later when I see a reddish egret on Beer Can Island, which is at the northern tip of Longboat Key. It is earlier in the day than when I first saw the egret, the light is different and the bird's head and neck now appear rust/red and its body no-nonsense gray. The bird's dark legs are long and slender but are bunched and thick where they join the body. The egret's neck is stretched out to the left. It flies a few feet, tippy toes forward, then stops, looking stately against a backdrop of still-as-glass water. The egret suddenly flutters its wings but does nothing. Abruptly it flies a few feet and lands. Tiptoe, flutter and fly. I'm starting to get it. The loopy dance is simply a way of moving.

The egret is moving slowly away from me toward mangroves on the other side of the tidal pool in which it is hunting. As it moves further away the egret's head and neck start to blend with brown reeds on shore. Camouflage. A little blue heron is trotting along so close to the reeds that it's almost invisible. They are yards apart and are eyeing each other. The little blue is really a shoreline feeder and the reddish is further out. They pass like ships in the night. The reddish is now near a sandbar where its neck and head blend with it and the gray body with the water. Slowly it moves out of sight.

The egret's loopy dance is all about locomotion, of which birds have two major means. Foot and flight. Other than walking they can trot or fly. The reddish egret can and does both almost simultaneously, in various combinations to get to prey. It propels itself forward with foot power, augmenting that at times by flying low for a few feet. We humans are limited to our two feet. Flight for us is long distances inside moving metal tubes-airplanes or helicopters. We aren't accustomed to thinking of flight as short airborne bursts of distance that basically aid walking or trotting.

I stand there a little content, a little drained, a little awed. I look around at the smoothness of the sand, feel the silence and the temporary isolation, letting it all sink in. After a while I chuckle. My wife likes the ballroom dance programs on Public TV. I'll have to coax her to come out here and see this guy in action. She'll like his moves.


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