Longboat Key, Florida
February 12, 2014
The morning of my birding class’s field trip to a local 32-acre refuge dawns sunny and comfortable. Nervous before the group arrives, I check out a pond which is empty, a tidal pool, which has two female mallards and a tree on which there are four grackles that fly. When the group gathers, our first stop at the tidal pool produces nothing. Great. A birding group has come to see birds not hear about what they missed.
We turned into an area where there’s a children’s playground and immediately hit pay-dirt. In a bare tree is an osprey, a large fish eating raptor, just hanging out. Everyone has their binoculars up as I explain that a brown horizontal “mustache” by its eye is a defining feature. There are some grackles, a few starlings, and a half dozen brown headed cowbirds which come and go. The cowbird, I explain, is a parasite that places its eggs in other birds’ nests hoping that they will be incubated. Some note that another osprey is flying nearby. Continuing down a wooden walkway we find a second perching osprey. OK, at least the trip, isn’t a failure.
On a bridge over a tidal pond some of my group has their binocs up. There on two massive black tree trunks, in full sunlight are two dozing female mallards, probably the same two that we’d missed minutes before. Both have their heads turned to the rear nestled in their backs while one keeps an eye on us. Their plump, brown bodies and stumpy orange webbed feet and legs are brilliant in the morning sun bringing an ohhh or two. Then our one-eye-open female wakes up, inches over to the water and dives in bringing more ohhs and ahhs. She waddles around, gets on another stump and repeats the performance. Later my wife and I agree that these common birds were the morning’s most beautiful sight.
At Sarasota Bay four white ibis are feeding in the water probing for tiny coquina shells with their long down turned Lifebuoy soap colored bills. A woman asks me if the dark one is a juvenile. It is. I realize that this group has people with birding experience which is making the trip more fun. At a walkout there is a feeding little blue heron which is a shore hugger and will stay, allowing everyone a good look. A few brown pelicans fly by and a sharp-eyed man, Everett, who’s from Tennessee, and was in the class last year notes a white mass across the bay which appears tiny but could very well be white pelicans, that are fellow snowbirds, winter visitors to Florida. Someone notices a white bird in the adjacent mangroves which has black legs and yellow feet. It is a snowy egret and the group can see the contrasting black and yellow feet as it walks.
On the sand just below the walkout is a dead horseshoe crab. It had drawn the attention of a little girl and her mother who’ve just left. Taking the opportunity for a little theater, I pick it up by the tail, turn it around to show the group that its legs are gone, probably eaten by gulls. I explain that it is 475-million years old and its eggs are a favorite food of red knots, which are sandpipers, that make a 9,300 mile trip from Tierra del Fuego in South America to the Canadian Arctic, their breeding grounds. However the horseshoe crabs are being over harvested. That along with climate change makes for a drastically declining red knot population. Later my wife tells me that they were enthralled. Hey, it helps to be a ham!
There’s a young couple, Gary and Helen, who I know from the beach near where we stay, that are enthusiastic novice birders. They have great eyes and walking at the front of the group, they are the first to spot small warblers and song birds at tree top level and in foliage. Soon warblers, mercurial small birds, are spilling out of treetops into others and people can’t get a good look. That’s the way warblers are, I tell them, they’ll drive you crazy. It brings a laugh of relief. Heading back to the gazebo from where we started, they find a bird in a tree with a light breast. With the sun also on it, this mourning dove appears bigger than its 12-inches. I tell the group to focus their binoculars on its aqua eye ring. They are smitten, as am I, by this ordinary bird that is a star in nature’s spotlight.
At the gazebo I want to show them some of Audubon’s drawings from his collection of
Birds of America. I’ve bought a 1939 copy at a local library book sale whose title is all but rubbed off the cover. The plates however are color rich. Reaching into my multi-pocketed cargo shorts, I can’t find my reading glasses which draws a laugh. The absent minded professor strikes again. However I have his painting of an osprey bookmarked. It shows the wildness of the bird carrying a fish, head first and the enthusiasm Audubon may have felt in watching this bird. I get a thrill out of looking at these drawings, knowing that 200 years ago this giant saw the same birds that we have today. In addition to being an identification exercise, I’d like this morning to be a small look into the aesthetics of birds as well. There are some appreciative murmurs. After the trip is over I see a yellow-rumped warbler in a tree. The bird goes into the tree’s recesses but its breast and belly, in good light, look like a fine drawing. There’s a thin line between avian and art. I relax and take it in. This has been a big morning.