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A Bird’s Eye View: February 12, 2010

Birding in Florida’s Early Morning Light

It’s early morning on Longboat Key, a 10-mile strip just above Sarasota where my wife and I are spending our fifth winter. Out on the beach the light is hard, one’s senses are fresh and birds are feeding, It’s the best time to see the beauty of Gulf Coast birds.

The sun’s been up for ten minutes as my wife and I walk onto Whitney Beach. The temperature is 70 degrees and the wind stiff at 15mph. Minutes later we are looking at a great blue heron walking in the water looking for breakfast. It is allowing us an unusually close view and we try not to look at the big blue directly for too long for fear of frightening it off. However the fish eater is hardly bothered by us. The bird’s long white neck is lined with ink black marks, which seem to jump out with the first full rays of light falling on it. The breeding plumes on the back of head and neck are also a brilliant black. The bird’s rich color highlighted by the hard light of early morning is eye opening.

Several immature gannets, winter migrants to Florida, are winging it offshore. Primarily in silhouette, they have a a long body with distinctly bent back wings, which appear too long for that body and a downturned head that scans the sea for fish. As they are bucking a stiff wind the gannets are flying fast this morning. It looks as if one has been swallowed by the rough waves below. This is likely an optical illusion, none-the-less my heart sinks. After anxious seconds the gannet appears in a lane between two swells. These guys know what they’re doing!

A few mornings later a loon comes ashore seemingly in distress. The moment brings a pall. I’ve seen several dead loons on this beach and don’t want to see another wet lifeless mass of feathers being lapped by the water. Two years ago I helped rescue one here. It had been exhausted but was released in good health the next morning. This loon goes back into the water very close to shore, paddling parallel to it. Without consulting my brain, my feet walk after the bird. I’m afraid that the gray-headed diving bird with the javelin bill will come ashore and flop to the sand in exhaustion. Someone in the nearby group of birders that I’ve just left may have a cell phone and I’ll stay with it until a rescuer arrives. Following along I admire the bird’s design, which has dark colors characteristic of its back that reach onto the sides of its neck. The bird stops and faces out to sea. I look away for a minute that’s the last I see of the loon. Apparently it’s well enough to travel. I’m greatly relieved. Good luck friend.

Beer Can Island, the northernmost tip of Longboat Key, has a number of fallen and standing ravaged trees. On a limb at the top of one tall, bare, ash colored tree perches an osprey. The raptor looks as if it is drying off. Minutes later with the sun struggling to come out I move closer. Through binoculars I get a sense of the bird’s duality: delicateness and power. On the sides of its dark brown wings are very fine golden lines, which are feather separations. The dark yellow eye with its black center offeIf it held a fish in its claw that eye might be blazing. Now it is holding on with one claw, shaking the other and twitching its tail. Is he getting set to fly? No he’s staying. So am I. The sky is reddish blue with small pebbly clouds and one very large one that the wind has stretched out. Peacefulness personified. With the osprey for company I stay drinking in the moment.

Walking back there are three willets, large, stately, medium brown sandpipers, whose black bills are a little too long for their lithe bodies. Too often birders overlook this bird’s subtle elegance. Before, a willet was here that I call “long bill’ because its lower mandible is longer than the upper. This bird is an anomaly as the others have bills that match in length. It isn’t here now but others are feeding furiously at the water’s edge One lets me within seven feet. Real close. Repeatedly the willet sticks its partially opened bill into the wet sand often up to its eyes. It moves its neck and head fast like a little jackhammer, while its bill probes the sopping wet sand for morsels including tiny coquina shells. While I can see nothing in its bill, I can see into the willet’s mouth, which is a dark mauve. On another bird an open mouth might resemble raw meat. On the willet it’s subtle. As the clear shallow water retreats I see the bill of one under it for a few seconds. It’s as if I were watching with an underwater camera not binoculars. Probing in the same spot it has made a little “well.” The water momentarily covers its head. Abruptly the willet runs after a retreating wave. No rest for these guys.

The snowy egret walks onto the sand from shallow water leaving three long-toed footprints on the wet surface. Abruptly the wash of an incoming wave covers them leaving no trace. Now you see it, now you don’t. It’s late morning and the magic light of early morning is gone as are most of the birds. But early tomorrow morning the hard light will be back, as will the birds. So will I.