Longboat Key, Florida - Dense fog blankets the beach so that the only thing which is clearly visible are the large bushes of seagrape whose round leaves are either dark green or autumn rust. I can hear but not see the ocean. Walking toward the water I cannot see the houses, which line the beachfront and decide to wait a while before walking. Soon there's a broken half sun peering from behind the dense white. The ocean is grayer than green but easily seen are long lines of gently rolling, shallow whitecaps. A Forster's tern hovers above the water, with its pointed, bent back wings and long thin bill. It starts to dive but pulls up, perhaps hindered by the fog.
Further ahead is a large group of mixed beach birds; royal terns with their long straight orange bills and black skimmers that have long red and black, torch-like bills whose lower mandible is longer than the upper. Some people are walking into the group of birds and the royals start to walk away. The skimmers however scurry and very quickly lift off. They fill the air with their long pencil thin black forms, which are coming directly toward me. This has happened before and the birds have veered off. This time however they stop short and glide down to the sand putting distance between themselves and human interlopers.
On Beer Can Island the mangroves look so green in the fog that I can almost hear them whisper; "This moisture is how we stay so green." There's a man carrying a very long telephoto lens who has been out here among the fallen trees with huge upturned root systems, which people decorated with shells. He looks familiar. His name is Eric and he was here a year ago in January visiting from Chicago and birding. He shows me a photo of a snowy egret with a large fish in its bill that he's taken minutes before.
There's a bird hunting on the shoreline that appears to be a Louisiana heron. In the fog it is hard to tell. The heron is peering into the water spring loaded and ready to pounce on any fish that shows itself. Its green legs are bent back at more than a 45-degree angle and the neck is more tightly crooked than I've ever seen. Overhead a dozen brown pelicans are silently descending on long outstretched wings. They come one after the other, their dark brown and white forms appearing stark. I stand next to one of the pilings of the Longboat Key drawbridge, which is nearly a half-mile long, but the fog has eaten much of the bridge. Slowly the lights of a car come out of that fog looking eerie.
Moving on I find four snowy egrets that Eric described. "Hey, which one of you got the large fish?" These birds have black legs and yellow feet and for that reason are nicknamed "golden slippers." Their yellow seems to positively scream in this soupy fog. Nearby I find a clump of stringy reddish brown seaweed and pick it up. It is much heavier and spongier than I would have imagined. The stuff is edible but I don't even think about putting it near my mouth.
Starting back the visibility has increased but soon the wind picks up allowing the fog again to blanket the beach. I can see the forms of the shell collectors, holding their plastic bags that are out scouring the sand for small treasures. Their presence is reassuring. The moisture from the fog clouds my glasses and I need to wipe them off as I walk slowly up the beach.
The large group of terns is still there and there is a loud peep coming from them. After a while I see one of the royal terns, its long orange bill opening and closing with the sound emanating from it. The bird is walking after another tern, which it moves in front of and gets into a supplicating position with its body slightly lower and its head raised while making the high peeping sound. The other tern looks away and walks away. This act is performed several times. I think that the peeping bird may be begging for food but am not sure.
What I am sure of is that I see the giraffe-like figure of some tree limbs planted in the sand, which is decorated with seaweed and the pile of aqua and white beach chairs marking the point at which I get off the beach. I had no idea that I'd trudged so far. After a brief stop at home I leave to walk over the Longboat Key drawbridge, which in the fog is like walking into eternity, but by now the fog has all but cleared.
In the middle of the bridge I stop to watch a cormorant below which has a large fish in its bill that has to be too wide to swallow. The fish is a sheepshead porgy. It is silver with broad black stripes. I've never seen a cormorant, a diving bird, with this fish as a potential meal. The bird is doing everything possible to swallow the fish. At first it holds the fish crosswise in its bill. No way. Then it tries to put the fish's head back toward its throat, tilting the bill upward and shaking vigorously. No use. The cormorant is going to have to give up the fish but I can't stay here too long. Lowering my binoculars for a split second and putting them back on the cormorant I don't see the fish. I do however see a large bulge in the bird's neck. Bye, bye fish. How did the cormorant ever get its jaws open wide enough? Well, I didn't think that the fog would clear either.