Longboat Key, Florida
On Mondays, after taking my wife to her bridge class, I go to a nearby 32-acre refuge. Early afternoon is when birds are resting but one recent afternoon I got lucky.
A Long Lunch
The brown oval form of a raptor precedes me into the refuge landing on a tree branch. As I’m about to put binoculars on the hawk it flies. It might have been a red-shouldered hawk. At a fountain pool I see a white and red form. Getting binoculars on the form it turns out to be a feeding roseate spoonbill. The bird is so named for its Dixie-cup shaped gray bill, a bill like no other. The 32-inch “bird from Mars” quickly sweeps its gray bill left to right, right to left as it moves steadily through the water. I cannot take my eyes away from the white and pink body with bold red slashes on the side and legs which resemble beet roots. Its head is a dull yellow, brighter around the eyes and on the rump.
I can see the bill slightly open under shallow water as it ranges back and forth ready to snap shut in a millisecond when it touches prey. This is an uncommon bird which is losing wetlands and is on the species of special concern list. It is also shy and will fly in a heartbeat if anyone comes upon it when resting. This is not true when it is feeding. If I’m relatively still, don’t make any sudden moves or noise, it could care less about one human. The bill’s front half is smooth while the base half is slightly ridged and has twin line-like openings. Gleaming from water the spoonbill raises it slightly to swallow what has been taken from the pond.
While the spoonbill takes a breather a blue/gray flash comes across the water landing near it. This is a tricolored heron which is gray, wine, yellow and white. It is formerly known as the “Louisiana” heron but has a range far out of that state. The newcomer gives an incentive for the spoonbill to go back to feeding. It stays behind the heron whose legs might be raising prey from which the spoonbill can benefit. While the tricolor is a common bird, I don’t see it much and would probably take the opportunity but the spoonbill is irresistible as I seldom see it. Both come toward where I’ve been standing. The lithe tricolor moves slowly and deliberately while the spoonbill is vacuuming up everything. The water reflects off its white breast and belly and as it passes me the amber eye seems to be bulging so that it almost appears not to be in the bird’s body.
The tricolor stabs the water twice and each time seems to come up with a small fish. Good! They both work the side of the pool until they are at the far end where I think I’ll lose them in the mangroves. But the tricolor knows where the action is and suddenly flies across the pool to where they started. The spoonbill, neck crooked, follows. They both work that end, walk past me again and get out of the pool. The tricolor flies first and I hear the whoosh of the air and beating wings as the spoonbill lifts off. Bye. It was great seeing yuz.
Losing Track of Time
On the boardwalk, in the dark of the mangroves there’s a sudden loud noise. It’s the unmistakable sound of sudden flight. Whatever it is heard me coming and it’s big. I walk as softly as I can, raise my binoculars and see, a piliated woodpecker. It’s 16.5 inches and its bulk makes the bird look bigger. The fiery red cap, the very long pointed bill and the black lines by the head and eyes make it a cross between fierce and cartoonish. It goes to another tree looking for insects. My mind raises the unthinkable: could this be the “extinct” Ivory-billed woodpecker? No don’t get carried away by the mysterious mangroves and the sudden unexpected piliated my rational self answers.The bird flies to another tree and then into some mangroves. No movement, no sound. Gone.
Now the water looks bluer, the sun brighter, the breeze more refreshing. That’s what three uncommon birds will do for you. I walk around the tidal pools in the preserve’s back waters when suddenly there’s the loud sound of a leaf blower. I’ve seen a few fleeting warblers but now they are spilling out of trees like coins out of slot machines. A few allow short looks as they momentarily perch. Light bellies with dark streaks on the sides. These are probably prairie warblers, also uncommon birds, but found here and not seen too often. Lower on a tree is a blue-gray gnatcatcher. At 4.5-inches it is slightly smaller than the warblers above but is a blue-gray with a white eye ring and a long raised tail that it sometimes swishes like a sushi chef. Again another bird not often seen.
The bird’s sound is unmistakable but I can’t locate it in the trees’ foliage. Suddenly I remember to look at my watch. I’ve barely got enough time to get back for the end of my wife’s bridge class. Next time, I vow to get here earlier. I’m taking a birding class here on their first field trip in a few weeks and will check it out early the afternoon before while my wife is playing bridge. I lost track of more time than I’d realized as I’m late getting back. My wife testily says that next time we’ll get to bridge early so I can have more time to forget about time in the refuge but nonetheless, pick her up on time. Actually, we think very much alike.