Long Day At The Beach


Two royal terns in a courtship ritual, wing joints out bills almost touching. One in a submissive pose. This pair may or may not wind up mating, this is just a courting ritual.
Two royal terns in a courtship ritual, wing joints out bills almost touching. One in a submissive pose. This pair may or may not wind up mating, this is just a courting ritual.

Longboat Key, Florida

March 27, 2014


A few days ago I spent the morning and late afternoon birding at the beach experiencing its rhythms. While the morning can be exciting because birds are feeding, the afternoon brings a winding down of the day.


The morning is cloudy and comfortable. An overweight tourist, camera in hand, is scattering breakfast cereal among a large number of gulls, shorebirds and crows. This creates an artificial feeding frenzy with food that I’m not sure is healthy for the birds and can help make them dependent on people for food. All this for a sham picture. I bristle with indignation. However as the sterile excitement subsides, a laughing gull still in winter plumage walks briskly through a narrow tidal pool surrounded by dun colored sands. I can practical see the movement of muscles beneath its feathers. The bird’s eye is calming and in the dim morning light, the scene is soothing.


Some terns are flying high in one direction and a mass of sanderlings fly just above the waves in another direction. The group curves gently and lands among two red knots, a group of black-bellied plovers, a ruddy turnstone and a few willets, making a potpourri of shorebirds.


In the late afternoon a laughing gull in dull winter plumage comes down a slope and into the shallow water. There seems to be a huge insect in its bill. It’s running away from another laugher also in winter plumage who would like that tasty meal. The bird scampers away from its pursuer amidst large patches of wet seaweed. Then it darts away from a fly-in gull. The insect seems to have some life left and the gull repeatedly adjusts it in its bill failing to down the creature. Did the laugher bite off more than it can swallow? A few times the laugher drops the insect but manages to retrieve it. It positions the insect in its bill a few times. How long will this go on? With one or two timely chomps, the insect disappears and the other laughers go hungry.

Royals Courting

Nearby are a group of royal terns that are squawking, laughers and a red knot that is morphing into a summer rust colored breast. A lesser black-backed gull goes to the water’s edge and behind it in the sand are two faces peering directly at me. They have several symmetrical triangular patches of very dark brown. They are ruddy turnstones looking like they are wearing hockey goalies’ masks. I stop scanning because one of the laughers now has my undivided attention. It has a pale rosy hue on its milk white breast. I’ve seen this before on sandwich terns at this time of year and believe it to be a chemical reaction to the breeding season. I’ve also seen it on one royal tern. But never before on a gull. This is exciting!


An hour later, on a lightly traveled stretch of beach, there’s an isolated royal tern twosome.  Both hold wing joints away from their bodies, standing very near each other. This is a sure sign of courting interest. After a while a third royal flies in close to the interested parties and loudly announces its presence. Is this a second male suitor? The newcomer moves closer. There is a small noise from the original two. What’s going on here?


Soon the new arrival flies off and one of the original two flies after it, soon followed by the third. Two of the royals land among the group, wing joints out facing each other. I don’t know if its the original couple that has withstood a rival or a newly formed one. This is prelude to the mating season which begins in April. However one thing I am getting to understand about courtship rituals among royal terns is that the results aren’t necessarily what one sees at any given moment.

A Photo Op

Some royals are standing on a ridge are looking out to the ocean and the lowering sun as if they are waiting for a signal that only they can see, to send them homeward. A lone lesser black-back gull appears tired and looks down at its foot. It then walks a few paces and again looks at it. Rodin’s The Thinker. Nothing appears wrong with the gull and I wonder what it’s feeling or thinking. They are sentient beings and I assume they have a range of emotions other than fear. I also wonder if they think or if they think like humans do. However those questions are in the realm of science and philosophy.


Down the beach there’s a group of seventeen red-breasted mergansers, diving ducks, swimming out to sea. I step into the water walking parallel to them because they are just out of good camera range. The light is beginning to dim. The birds are paddling through swells making them bob up and down like corks. I point my camera lens where there’s action click and walk. The mergansers are aware of my presence but apparently see no threat and move closer to shore into better camera range. After a while they are joined by another merganser at mid beach and all turn and go in the opposite direction. They come tantalizingly close to shore but I’m not following them as this is the point at which I get off the beach. I feel a few sprays of fine mist, then a few drops of rain. That’s it for me. I don’t know what signal the birds on the beach may be awaiting, which will send them flying homeward. However rain is mine and tomorrow is another day.

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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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