Beaches are places where avian drama plays out about territory. They are also places where frustration can arise and I sometimes find myself meditating over small moments of insight and wonder.
It’s an all-out territorial tussle between two great blue herons over who is going to fish this part of the beach. Disputes between birds happen quickly and end almost as quickly. When they occur between two 46-inch birds with 6-foot wing spans however, they appear dramatic. In this case the resident great blue chased the visitor and continued fishing in the shallow surf, its territory secured at least for the moment.
A lesser black-backed gull is eating a fish when an immature herring gull flies in and walks over. The herring gull is a heavyweight at 25-inches and the lesser is hardly small at 21-inches. The black-backed, red mouth open, goes after the newcomer, who offers no resistance. Walking back to its meal, the black-backed opens its bill, looks up to the heaven and calls out “aw, aw, aw” ten times. A miniature KIng Kong. The victor vigorously tears strips from the fish and eats them. A laughing gull comes and the lesser black-backed perfunctorily chases it. When two more laughers come close, the lesser black-backed moves several feet toward them. Like an ice hockey goalie leaving its goal crease it walks further toward them to protect its meal. I walk over to the dunes sit down and make notes. A group of laughing gulls comes very close. These are the most aggressive birds on the beach when it comes to food and obviously think that I have some. When I stand up they leave.
Not Close Enough
Seventeen black scoters come ashore with the waves, flopping on the wet sand. They are northern, diving, sea ducks, extraordinarily rare here. From the first day they showed up two weeks ago I’ve been unable to get in close enough to get a pic of the male which is all black except for its knobby yellow bill, therefore nicknamed “butter-bill,” or “butter-nose.” I’ve got a better chance of dancing the Beer Barrel Polka on the moon tonight.
They’ve come ashore approximately at the same part of the South end of the beach riding shallow waves in and standing very clumsily on shore often flopping on their bellies while feeding in the wet sand. Their primary food is mussels but they also take small sea-clams, razor-shells and small scallops.
They appear comfortable going to this area but not with humans near them. I’ve tried several times to get close to them and they maddeningly paddle slowly and purposefully over the incoming waves and out to sea. This morning they came and left three times. The last time they left when a woman was walking nearby. However I’m developing a substantive profile of their behavior, which is no small compensation.
A ring-billed gull makes a short common, haunting cry. With its bill open, head up and neck extended, it does several more. Beach music. It reminds me of a bugler playing “First Call” which is the call to post at a race track. In this case it’s the bird announcing that the beach is open for exploration. It’s always later, that I find this haunting cry soothing.
Red knots, in winter, are a dull brown shorebird common on the beach here. Their numbers are declining, a major reason for which is the over harvesting of horseshoe crabs. The horseshoe crab eggs are their food at their last migration stop before making it to their Arctic breeding grounds. Fewer horse crab eggs means fewer red knots make it there. Nearby Tampa Bay is both a staging area for the knots and hosts them in winter, which may be why they are here. I’m looking at a hundred fast flying red knots. They suddenly land in a mass making it seem as if electricity is going through the flock. After landing they take off in a partial horseshoe shaped curve. The knots then sharply turn back the way they came, turning a startling brilliant white against the green Gulf. El-lek-tric!
I find a dead seahorse which is a 4-inch fish with a horse-like head. No bird has touched it. There are no bite marks or wounds on the body. It is dead and no bird apparently will eat it. Another time I see a ring-billed gull holding something in its bill that I thought might be a seahorse. After flapping it and trying to eat it the gull gives up and drops it in clear shallow water I’m able to photograph the dead creature which has large bite marks. Again no other bird again would touch it. A tough meal to swallow?
Three laughing gulls are flying low, almost in slow motion over the beach. One flies to my right and looks at me. Seeing them so close they appear larger than life. I feel like I’m walking in a living outdoor museum. It’s a bit scary having them so close, literally with the upper hand. However, if they thought I had food they would have swarmed me by now. The guy on my right lands on the sand. In front of my eyes it morphs into a familiar one legged laugher that I’ve often seen here.
Suddenly it doesn’t look mildly menacing nor is it an object of my pity either. The gull may have lost its foot to a monofilament fishing line but it gets around just fine as I’ve noted on several occasions. I wonder if it has recognized me from other times? Probably not but birds make me put on my thinking cap. What I reflect on, I sometimes find later in my emotional memory. Those moments are filled with joy and intrigue, rewards in their own right.