Florida Birds Prefer Fish

This is a close up view of a lesser black-backed gull. It's not looking away but has its eye, which is on the side of its head focus directly on me.
This is a close up view of a lesser black-backed gull. It’s not looking away but has its eye, which is on the side of its head focus directly on me.

Longboat Key, Florida

March 21, 2014

On a cool morning that’s going to have a 15-degree upswing by noon, Whitney Beach on  the Gulf of Mexico is almost bereft of birds which is uncommon at the end of March.

Fly-Ins and Swim-Ins

There are two female mallards paddling lazily in the water. Mallards don’t usually like saltwater and I wonder about this. Minutes later three more mallards flop down joining them. Two are females, one is a male. Now I’m wondering why he is watching the females paddle out. It becomes clear that the male has no intention of joining them as he abruptly rises into the air flying furiously toward Sarasota Bay. Maybe he just wants to sleep in.

 

Cormorants, nicknamed “shags,” because they take fish underwater can be seen diving often. However a lone cormorant drying its wings on the beach is a rarity. This one has its inner wings held out and the outer part of the wings facing down. This the standard position these black birds with orange bills and emerald green eyes, take when they are drying out their wings. “Shags” rarely paddle in to rest when the sea is heavy and they are tired. Today however is calm. What gives?  Will it be here long? Should I get my camera? The bird soon waddles to the water, flies a few feet over shallow white caps and lands on a swell where it navigates out to deeper water like a little boat. Time to dive for more breakfast.

 

Fishing For Breakfast

Two osprey come over the water under ultra bright sun. One flies fast and straight, while the other is circling in my direction. My guy’s belly and underwings are cream colored while its dark brown areas are clear and sharp. The raptor’s dark tail bands are all straight and tight as is the horizontal “mustache” by its eye. The osprey nicknamed the “fish-hawk” is circling toward the beach and just overhead it seems to be slowing down. The raptor slowly turns left, its head down, searching the water for fish. Now it glides left then languidly turns right and continues circling. The other osprey comes back again flying fast and not wasting time on what may be a barren area.

 

Forster’s terns are mid-size terns that are all business when hunting. In the air they have a deeply forked tail, white body, a black bill and a darkening head. They often plunge fast at a 90-degree angle into water that appears too shallow for them. Making a splash they come up quickly and fly off. They are very agile fliers and often gracefully pull up when aborting dives. This one is hovering high and keeps looking while I get binocs on it. Still hovering, it then plunges and comes up with its bill facing me. I see something gray in it that is quickly swallowed. It has scored a fish. Another Forster’s is above me and the red slash of its feet is visible sticking out from its white body. This one hovers but quickly flies off. Nothing here.

 

A Feast

Further down the beach I see what appears to be two laughing gulls in a territorial dispute. When I get there the reason is obvious. There is a large fish lying at the water’s edge whose side seems sheared off but its head, an open mouth, an eye and tail are intact. This is a mystery to me; gulls scan’t slice the side off a fish. Theirs is a peck, probe, pull and tear method. Eyes go first and a hole is made as the insides are taken out often leaving bright red blood. The only red marks are tiny ones on the fish’s pink insides and it is clear the gulls made them.

Achilles, a beach buddy, is a fisherman originally from Greece but who lives in nearby Bradenton and fishes here most days. After examining the fish he says that It is a black drum that has been filleted and tossed away. That explains the sheared off look as well as the head and tail being intact. I back away from the fish and the two laughers go back to work on the carcass crying and calling, opening their black bills and showing dark red mouths that resemble gashes.

 

Walking slowly, a bright yellow legged and footed, lesser black-backed gull comes on the scene. Its presences cause the laughers to leave their feast to the larger newcomer whose bill is a striking yellow with a red spot at the front of its lower mandible. The bird rips off a big piece of flesh. Standing in a tidal pool of water the black-backed pulls, jerks and lifts the fish. A strand of pink intestines about a foot-long is gradually pulled from the fish. Then the gull gradually sucks it all into its mouth like a long strand of spaghetti. it rests a while and then goes back to work after rinsing its bill in the water. The laughers wait their turn but announce their impatience by making sharp mewing sounds at the black-back.

 

When I go back there are two turkey vultures circling over the water. This just doesn’t happen. Their ivory colored small heads are visible is their subtly beautiful pewter underwing design. But they don’t fish, they look for carcasses. I don’t see the remains of the fish and think that the tide reclaimed its own. The next morning the fish is lying where it was stripped to the spine with only the skull and tail remaining. Looking at the bare bones I can’t help but marvel that the gulls didn’t waste a thing. When you have to fish to eat apparently, you don’t.

 

 

 

 

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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