Images that remain after the birds have flown is part of good birding. Last winter on two consecutive days I saw some rare and some mundane images that have stayed with me.Click here for more bird photos by Michael Givant
It’s low tide in Sarasota Bay with an expanse of wet sand exposed and only a few areas of water remaining. A yellow-crowned night-heron stands on the tidal flats. These colorful herons feed both day and night with crab as their favorite dish. This one’s crown and legs are a dull rust instead of being yellow. The yellow sides of its black head and the short black lines on its suede gray sides look like they were drawn by a painter’s fine hand. The juxtaposition of the sand and the exotic looking bird is soothing and holds me.
At the Coquina Bay Walk on Leffis Key, near a walk out, is a great egret. The large heron stiffens, stands still and looks up at me as I approach to watch it. Another birder says that it’s probably a sub-adult, meaning not quite an adult. He’s probably right as the bird’s legs which should be black are a rust-yellow. The egret quietly walks in the muck; it stands still, staring down, bends it neck forward, staring intently and comes up with a small white crustacean. The egret does it again but this time with a rust-yellow raised. Another painting.
My “Lotto” number comes up, it’s 100! That’s a very large number of white pelicans on a tidal sandbar and in the surrounding water around it. They are winter visitors, all white with enormous yellow/orange bills that develop a golf ball-like breeding bump on them during the mating season. Over five-feet in length with a nine-foot wingspan and weighing over sixteen pounds, they are impressive. If parents still tell their kids that the stork delivered them, this is the bird that they may have in mind. These whites pellys are also cooperative hunters, herding prey to shallow water where they feed on them but right now are relaxing.
There’s a tidal pool in this preserve with a walkway from which to view it. One side has a group of trees which have been a favorite perching spot of a kingfisher for a number of years. The bird, my wife’s favorite, can apparently see or hear a person coming. I’ve tried every bit of stealth I have to get a good view of the bird perching, diving for a fish and coming back to its perch to eat it. Nada. This morning I see it flash past, going to a dead tree where it stays a short while. That’s more than I usually see.
I walk home over a half-mile long drawbridge that spans the Gulf of Mexico on one side and Sarasota Bay on the other. It is windier up here than the reported 13 mph and cold. In the dark choppy water below, twenty brown pelicans are feeding. Smaller than the white pellys, they are very large agile fliers. They fly several feet close to the surface and go in at a slight angle absorbing the swells. One comes up with its pouch extended and is swallowing. Inside the pouch is a fish’s gray form. This view from above is unique as I usually watch pelicans dive from ground level.
The next afternoon the beach is littered with dead eyeless fish. I can’t believe my eyes as seven brown pellys fly to shore and land in a mass of confusing flapping wings. Rarely does this occur. These birds, which go back in the fossil record at least 30-million years, always remind me of how dinosaur-like they appear. One waddles over to a dead fish and tries picking it up with its enormous bill which looks like old wood with a small red stain. It’s a no-go. Another comes over and soon they all go back into the water and are swimming around. The fish is gone. I can’t believe one swallowed it sand and all. Maybe there’re playing with it. Who knows?
Ten minutes later a brown pelly with a frosted colored head, which signifies that it’s breeding, comes ashore. It gets a dead fish. Holding the fish in its bill, the pelly drags it sidewards to the water. It looks as if the pelly is trying to get enough water in its pouch, which holds over two and a half gallons, to swallow the fish. It is quickly joined by a number of opportunistic pelicans, all circling close to each other. Slowly. This is a dance; the winner gets the prize. Never underestimate these comically appearing and clumsy looking birds, as thieves. Two years ago, during a field tripand in full view of my birding class, we watched a great blue heron patiently awaiting a throwaway from a wading fisherman. A brown pelly stole one right out from under the heron’s nose as the group “oohed” and “aahed” .
The fish tail sticks out of the pelly’s bill while the body is transparent in the orange outstretched, see-thru pouch. The dance continues. If the holder drops the fish, it’s another’s fortune and his misfortune. A non-breeding pelly picks at the one holding the fish, who gets it higher in its upheld bill. The fish moves toward the bird’s throat. Now it’s in the throat but hasn’t yet been swallowed. How long will this dance continue? A minute later the fish appears to be swallowed but the base of the pelly’s bill isn’t fully closed.
The pelly moves its belly and raises its wings, flapping them. There’s a little more movement. Then they all separate. It’s over. The dance took a full ten minutes. As they paddle out to sea I know that they are leaving a memory in the making.