Written by Michael Givant, email@example.com Friday, 01 February 2013 00:00
When you go birding you never know what you’re going to see. During four days last February, walking a Florida beach on Longboat Key that has a rich variety of shorebird life, I was able to see up close some things I’d never before noticed about familiar birds.
Feb. 3. On Beer Can Island, which is the Longboat’s northernmost tip, are some ravaged ash colored fallen trees with huge exposed root systems. One is wet with weeds and clinging to it are barnacles and shells. Nearby is an oystercatcher, large at 17.5-inches, with a long, thick red bill, white breast and black back. Digging in the wet sand this shorebird is putting on a demonstration of how it gets clamshells. That thick red bill is partially buried in the sand. When it pulls the bill out there’s a small white shell that is quickly swallowed. When digging, the bill is turned somewhat to the right. Last year when I saw these birds feeding I wondered if they weren’t “right-handed.” Now I’m again wondering.
When watching oystercatchers feed I’ve sometimes gotten unexpectedly close to them as I am now. With binoculars I look into its yellow eye and see that is rimmed with red and looks like a dartboard. In the center of the bird’s eye is a black “dot” that isn’t perfectly formed. It rather appears to be badly “drawn” by an unseen artist’s hand. I wouldn’t have seen this at a distance.
Feb. 6. By a tidal lagoon, I briefly see a solitary sandpiper. True to its name, this 8.5-inch bird is alone. Although rare here in winter, I’ve seen it several times but never had a close look at the bird. It walks to the right and I go down to the rim of wet sand. Initially I can’t locate the solitary but find it standing on some wheat colored muck. It is bending over eating tiny bits and characteristically bobbing its tail.
The bird and I are the only ones here. It has to be aware of my presence but gives no indication that I bother it. I’m excited, as there’s an open window of opportunity to examine a bird of which I know little. Silently I lean forward and focus my binoculars. The back and upper breast, are a dull medium brown. The belly is white. One side of the legs looks dark; the other side looks dark yellow. Then the bird flies too soon. Oddly I don’t feel disappointed, as I’ve gotten to note some things I’d not seen before and that in itself was exciting.
Feb.13. By the water is a group of sanderlings. These chunky sandpipers are often seen in small numbers racing after retreating waves then pecking the wet sand for aquatic morsels. This group is just ambling around.
Nearby is a black-bellied plover, our largest plover at 11.5-inches. However, in winter plumage, its belly isn’t black but rather white. Indeed, the striking black and white bird that one sees in summer is hardly recognizable in its relatively dull brown and white winter plumage. One day I saw a couple out here that appeared to be serious birders who kept looking back and forth at the erect plover and at a field guide. I told them it was a black-bellied plover and saw the look of recognition on their faces.
A black-belly and a sanderling standing next to one another offer an instructive comparison in shorebird identification. The plover is taller than the 8-inch sanderling and stands semi-erect. The black-belly walks most often alone or with one other. It moves slowly appearing only occasionally interested in food. By contrast the sanderlings scurry constantly for aquatic morsels in the wet sand. The stately plover has the bearing of a medieval prince who has no concern about his next meal. By contrast the scurrying sanderlings resemble endlessly toiling peasants.
Feb. 14. I take my birding class on a field trip to a wetlands area where initially we don’t see any herons or egrets, which are common here. We do see a roseate spoonbill and an eagle briefly fly overhead. Uncommon. We also see an osprey dive and latch onto a fish that’s too big with which to fly. It appears to have a hard time extracting its talons from its catch. Finally it does and flies. Another dives, catches and flies off with a fish. While this is happening, four bottle-nosed dolphins come fairly close to shore. A woman exclaims that there is so much she can’t see it all. Music to my ears.
As the trip is winding down a woman spots an egret close to shore. At first I can’t believe my eyes. There is the washed out rust body, the gray back and the partially translucent pink bill of Florida’s least common heron, the reddish egret. I am thrilled as this bird was nearly hunted to extinction for its plumes in the early 1900s and is making a slow comeback. Everyone gets a look before the bird goes off. The woman who spotted it gets a picture.
In late afternoon after leaving the wetlands I’m back on the beach. The tide is high, leaving little room to walk. A few ruddy turnstones walk up a sand incline. One is carrying a shell but drops it in the water. There are eight red knots all standing with heads resting on their backs as if they are snoozing. The day is coming to an end. The incessant din of the waves and the lowering sun make the moment mellow. I love it. Maybe I’ll be seeing some flocks fly over the Gulf, as the sun becomes an orange ball. Like I say, you never know what you’re going to see.