Christmas Eve Avian Fish Feast

 

An immature white ibis is partly brown in this phase. It is also a stealthy effective hunter.
An immature white ibis is partly brown in this phase. It is also a stealthy effective hunter.

Longboat Key, Florida

Christmas Eve, 2013

 

Christmas Eve morning on the Longboat Pass drawbridge, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Sarasota Bay, the wind is unmerciful and the tide is very low. I’m walking this half-mile span on my way to a nearby 30-acre wetlands preserve. On large white sand spits below the bridge lie a few dead fish. A ring-billed gull and a laughing gull peck at them unenthusiastically. On a nearby dock are a very large number of cormorants and brown pelicans. On the expanded sands of nearby Jewfish Key are huge numbers of these birds.

 

On dark strong swells bob twenty brown pelicans, some dull looking as they aren’t yet breeding and others with frosted necks indicating that they are breeding. Instead of plunge-diving they are feeding by flying a short distance and going into punishing swells. A bird comes up having emptied its pouch, which can hold almost three gallons of water. The pouch is stretched wide showing the gray form of a large fish. The pelly holds its head skyward and starts to swallow.

 

At the preserve there’s a yellow-crowned night-heron on the mudflats. The crown of its head which should be yellow is a light rust color as are patches on either side of its head. It’s legs are also a light rust on one side and yellow on the other. Later in discussing this with another veteran birder, it seems that this yellow-crown may be a sub-adult. An immature white ibis is patrolling the area by the flats near a fisherman in waders and is feeding well. With its white body and Lifebuoy soap colored down-curved bill and legs the white ibis is a tourist head-turner. The immature is heavily brown and doesn’t cause stares.

 

Off to the side by some mangroves is a great egret which stops in its tracks and stands statue-like without looking at me when I become visible. You can bet all of its attention is on this sudden interloper. This 39-inch egret is a methodical hunter in shallow water. It was once one of the most sought after birds by plume hunters for the millinery trade. This egret was nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century for its flowing breeding plumes called aigrettes, which perhaps a century ago, sold for 32-dollars an ounce. The bird is now abundant and widespread in Florida.

 

At another walk out I find three white pelicans then increasingly more until I count fifty. There are probably at least another fifty a half-mile away on the bay’s opposite shore. I’ve never seen so many of these winter visitors to Florida in one place and I’m a bit awed. They have nine-foot wingspans and huge orange bills which during the breeding season have bumps or “horns” about one-quarter of the way up the bill. They are collective feeders who, unlike the brown pellys, don’t dive but sometimes collectively herd fish to shallow water where they feed on them. They are said to eat upwards of four pounds of fish a day.

 

On one side of a tidal pool are mangroves where a kingfisher often perches. This guy always sees or hears me coming and I only get a glimpse of it. I approach the pool stealthily but the bird must have radar or sonar and I get the usual glimpse of it flying away. However, it lands at the top of a dead tree where it stays for a short time offering a view of its black crest. A small Christmas gift.

 

At the top of a hill, the highest point on Anna Maria Island on which the wetlands is located, is a panoramic view. Below in a bare tree is the brown and white form of an osprey. The “fish-hawk” doesn’t stay long not with this low tide, which is excellent for taking fish. Before leaving the preserve I see a male cardinal with a dark streak across its back, flying from the ground to a branch on which it perches, partially hidden in shadow. Perhaps the most recognizable American bird, it gets its name because it is the same color as the robes worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals.

 

I again check the first walkout where the great egret is hunting. This time it ignores me; familiarity and hunger render this human harmless. I also find the yellow-crown slowly walking, searching the mud flats. Its ball-peen hammer-like head and thick bill stop moving. The bird’s neck leans slightly forward, then it moves forward and head down silently stares. Then it snaps forward in a fraction of a second coming up with something. Watching it closely I focus on the mud where the bird is looking, not the bird. Again the staring and the millisecond snatch. I still can’t see what it gets. I focus hard a third time and can’t see where or what the night-heron gets and smile ruefully as the bird nicknamed “crab-eater” and “Indian Hen,” slowly walks out of sight.

 

I walk up the sandy path outside the preserve to a boat launching area where there are some white pellys. There are not only a parade of them but there are thirty-one ducks in the water, heads down, feasting on fish. When they momentarily rise up I see the long thin reddish bills and the familiar tufted heads. They are red-breasted mergansers, ducks that dive for fish. With the low tide they seem to be just sucking them up hardly having to use their teeth-like serrations on the inside of their bills to hold their prey firmly. The birds have fed well and it’s also gotten warmer so I won’t have to thaw out after walking the bridge home.

 

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Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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