In Florida at the end of March birds’ colors are being unhurriedly transformed as they slowly start to change from drab winter to bright summer plumages. In this transformative time, avian life is like a train that has left the station but not yet arrived at its destination. For birders, every day has the potential for new discoveries. It’s a wonderful form of freedom.
A Mystery Bird
On the beach late one morning I see a lean sandpiper that I can’t identify. The bird’s flanks are the color of golden wheat, its breast is also starting to turn that color. When shorebirds, which are difficult to identify, start to go from winter drab to summer bright plumages it makes Identification more easily said than done. I note other characteristics: long pale eye bars and a long bill. It’s hard to take my eyes off the bird because of the dark and light golden colors of its back. Later at home, after looking through field guides I unenthusiastically settle on the short-billed dowitcher. But I need better proof.
The next morning under a gray sky, the tide is very high and the breeze strong as waves pound the beach with rain imminent. As my wife and I walk we see the water almost reaching the dunes and tall grasses. The waves unmercifully pound a sea wall and cascade over the edge. Only two small islands of sand with sturdy beach grass are visible. In the midst of this romantic scene, the mystery bird shows up. I leave to get my camera. Will it still be on the beach when I get back?
It is, but won’t stand still for more than two-seconds. I follow it up and down the beach as it walks fast or flies and lands further away.
The bird has a color pattern or “flow.” Its neck and breast are starting to turn a rust color. that seems to flow into its sides which are also becoming dark. Color can “lie,” this time of year, as winter drab is slowly being discarded for summer bright. Birds’ bills never change shape, therefore they don’t lie.
The bird uses its long bill to probe sand mounds, dowitcher’s feed in the water. I should be paying more attention to the shape of its bill. I preach this to my classes but I’m too smitten by its color to take my own advice.
When it flies I can see a white line down the center of its back which only reinforces my thought that it’s a short-billed dowitcher. It’s very slender and half the size of a willet, a large, sleek sandpiper. It’s also smaller than the black-bellied plovers with which it seems to prefer standing. It flies with the flock whenever they go. Later this information will serve me well.
Walking The Beach
There’s a lot to be seen besides the mystery bird. The mating season is about to occur and there are signs of it now. Two laughing gulls stand by a beach exit. One has its wing joints out, a sure sign of mating interest. The bird’s open red mouth points skyward as it screams to the heavens. Minutes later a third laugher flies in and the original two fly.
The new arrival goes over to where the pair was standing and lets out a few weak squeals. Another laugher slowly flies a few inches over it, looks down and keeps going. Is the laugher on the ground an undesirable suitor?
As I walk, seven willets, large sandpipers, are feeding at the edge of the rough incoming waves. At one point three of them converge on the same spot. One lucky guy comes away with the prize, a small shell in its partially open bill.
The other two don’t attempt to steal it as a laughing gull or a royal tern would when another grabs a small fish. Two plump brightly colored mottled ducks go into the shallow water for a drink then walk briskly around. Hey, why not?
I’m getting off the beach when the first rain drops start. Just then two snowy plovers emerge seemingly out of the bone colored sand. These birds are so small and light in color that stumbling over them is often how one sees them. I get some good pics and now it’s home we go.
However a royal tern with a long silver fish in its bill offers another photo op. Rain or no rain I’m going to get fotos of this guy. The tern won’t let me near it, flying short distances deliberately and quickly. This hasn’t happened to me before.
The fish’s tail is sticking out of the royal’s bill but the tern thwarts my every approach. Finally in frustration I hear myself yell after it, a common seven letter epithet declaring the bird to be illegitimate and add “I’ll follow you to the end of the beach.” In doing so I accidentally scare a mass of sanderlings who fly and the tern goes with them. It’s gone baby, gone.
It pours all afternoon and I put my images on the computer and study them. I open a few field guides and read. One pic of a stilted sandpiper has the right “flow.” Some descriptions, and pics allow me to separate it from the short-billed dowitcher. There’s little doubt about it, my mystery bird is a stilt sandpiper, so named for its long legs. Identifying this uncommon bird has been a braintwister.
Looking at my photos, I feel mellow. The black is starting to fill in on black-bellied plovers, the rust coming in on the red knots and the ruddy turnstones are becoming more ruddy. The avian train has left its winter station but not yet arrived at its summer destination. For me the time between is one of the true joys of birding.