Written by Michael Givant Friday, 20 January 2012 00:00
Twice before dawn, I peer out the window into darkness–no rain and no palm tree leaves swaying. Lookin’ good. My birding class, which I teach at the Longboat Key Education Center in Florida, has their first field trip scheduled in a few hours on a beach across the street. When I go out to the beach at 7:40 a.m. the wind is gusting at near 20 mph and temperature is in the low 50s. There isn’t a bird to be seen. The walk is untenable. This is the first birding class I’ve taught and the retired college professor in me knows this is no way to begin.
We literally go to Plan B, a nearby 32-acre tidal wetlands, Durante Park. There, almost immediately, is a great egret in a tidal pond, which flies but gives us a good view. A few starlings are perched on a tree. Feeding in Sarasota Bay is a wood stork, which is on the endangered species list. Encouraging.
On a walkout to the bay, there’s an immature herring gull and a ring-billed gull roaming a sandbar. A great blue heron and a number of laughing gulls are also here. Some laughers with shells in their bills are dropping them from heights onto the sandbar, perhaps trying to break them and then pry out the meat. Great blue herons can stand motionless as statues for long periods of time before striking the water with their dagger-like bills. One is now doing that. Laughing gulls are aggressive and one encroaches on the territory of the great blue. The blue takes umbrage at the gull and a brief territorial dispute comes to an abrupt end, as the blue is much bigger and heavier. The group is seeing avian innovation and conflict; I couldn’t have planned this even if I’d thought of it.
There are a number of brown pelicans here, some with light frosty colored yellow heads. During the Gulf oil spill of 2010 these birds were often seen in the media, caked in bronze colored oil. Now it’s good to see them healthy. There’s a little blue heron walking in a stately upright manner. Here comes a tricolored heron, which has a gray back, yellow bill, white on the belly, some yellow on the throat and wine color on the neck. The tricolored comes fairly close showing us the back of its head, which has brilliant white breeding plumes hanging from it. Nice.
The snowy egret has a thin black bill, black legs and bright yellow feet. Those feet, which are used to stir the muck and raise prey are why it’s nicknamed “golden slippers.” One here is super energetic, quickly running, trotting, holding its neck out somewhat to the side like it was a hose with its head turned slightly inward. This last feature is subtle and upon pointing it out I hear a murmur of recognition from someone. I’m gratified. The snowy stabs its bill in the water, getting something, changing direction, running toward us, changing direction again and stopping, swallowing something again, then shaking its head quickly side to side, enjoying its snack. This guy’s a wildman. I could kiss him for showing up!
A fast flying belted kingfisher comes zipping by and disappears behind some trees. This bird is built like an exclamation point with an overly large head, a more tapered body and a thick, dagger-like bill for spearing fish. Kingfishers sometimes perch or hunt in the area where it landed. We’re going there next and perhaps we’ll see it. Before we head off, Anne, who’s standing near the mangroves, spots a small mercurial warbler that is bright yellow with black lines above and below its eyes and along the wings and body. I’ve never seen this particular warbler here in six winters and suggest that it may be a prairie warbler. Sandy, who has what looks like an iPhone, brings up a picture of a prairie warbler and it’s our warbler! Is the battered field guide, a staple of birding walks, headed the way of the Pony Express?
At a small gazebo, my students are standing on the platform or on benches, binoculars focused on a tidal waterway. They spotted some great egrets in a tree, a feeding wood stork in the water, and two cormorants that are looking toward the sky giving us an excellent view of their long hook-tipped yellow bills. Both cormorants soon fly giving us a good look at how they get a running start off the water and lift into the air.
Going over a small footbridge, the group finds several egrets and herons on the shallow water below that are jumping and flying short distances. A snowy egret climbs on a thin stick demonstrating its litheness and agility while giving us an excellent view of those black legs and elegant yellow feet. Someone points out that right in front of us, mainly hidden by the mangroves, is a stolid great blue heron unperturbed by twenty-some birders. As it slowly moves its bill I wonder if it’s not waiting patiently until we leave. Walking up an incline we get a great view of a perched osprey digging into a large bloody silver fish. Nature in the raw.
At the parking lot, a bird’s nest is spotted and we tally the number of species seen: Eighteen. What could have been a bust became a bonanza. This class just might turn out to be fun. Mindful that putting the success or failure of a birding class in the “hands” of birds is chancy, next week before our second trip, I’ll be peering out the window before dawn for luck. Why not? It might have helped this week.