Almost every day during the winter, I walk a stretch of beach that includes Whitney Beach and when it’s accessible, Beer Can Island, the northern most part of Longboat Key. I meander from bird to bird, which while not exciting, has a number of benefits. Here’s what I saw on three different days.
Monday, 9:45 a.m.
In the water a large bird rears up showing its dark back and a dirty white neck and breast. There’s its long heavy bill. This is a loon, known in Great Britain as “the great northern diver,” a winter visitor to Florida. Looking at the neck and breast is eerie and mysterious, sending a small jolt through me.
Five minutes later two loons are close together in the water. One is on the surface while the other dives twice. As they paddle, one looks placid and I can see its left eye. Three loons in a few minutes are as many as I’ve seen in a whole winter. What’s happening here?
Monday, 11:51 a.m.
I get a fourth loon sighting. Unreal. I’ve never had so many loon sightings in such a short time. The bird looks reddish brown with a dirty white neck. It dives several times but not as eloquently as a similar looking bird, the ballerina-like cormorant. It seems almost to pull itself under rather than dive gracefully. Once it rears up showing its breast and flaps its wings partially spreading them. Primeval.
Seven minutes later I catch up with the loon again. It’s now closer to shore and looking in my direction. I now can see both eyes and small droplets of water on its head and back. I love the detail.
Wednesday, 9:16 a.m.
On Beer Can Island there are four semipalmated plovers, so named because of the partial webbing between their toes. In their winter plumage they have dull orange legs and the base of their dark bills have some orange as well. The remnants of two dark rings, one around the eyes and another that is around the upper breast which has a “collar” of white. Looking closely with binoculars I note that there is some faded white around the eye.
I hadn’t seen these birds here until three winters ago when I came across them on a nearby beach. Each time I’ve seen them, the birds seem almost hidden in plain sight. This may be because of “disruptive coloration” meaning that the plovers’ bold browns, blacks and white, break up its outline and actually help them blend into the landscape. They walk and scurry doing little pecking. Twice they fly over the water, circle back going further down the beach that ends at Beer Can’s tip. The odd thing is that most of the time these birds don’t go near the water. Like desert nomads they are always on the high sand.
Following the semi-pals, I find a lone snowy egret in the water. This is a lithe, elegant bird that has wet breeding plumes hanging from its neck and lower back. Its yellow feet, which are joined to black legs, are the reason it has been nicknamed “golden slippers.” The snowy raises prey by stirring them up with its feet. Suddenly it stabs the water, shakes its head and seems to swallow. I become aware of the jackhammer noise from the Longboat Pass Bridge and wonder how the bird tolerates it.
Wednesday, 10:09 a.m.
At the seawall at the south end of Whit-Can about 1.75-miles from Beer Can’s tip, there’s a mass of sixty plus red knots. They are feeding on the wet sand. Momentarily they stand still facing out to sea. Their inactivity is in contrast to the waves; their lightly dotted brown breasts are a complementary color to the shallow blue water. Vast pebbly clouds allow the sun only temporary exposure then hide it. The moment is sublime.
Monday, 9:07 a.m.
There’s a stiff NE wind on Whitney Beach where twenty sanderlings are feeding. As waves retreat they scurry to soaked sands and peck for aquatic invertebrates. As they pass there seems to be a round shell on the sand. Getting binoculars on it, the “shell” is feathered with grayish legs. It’s a snowy plover, a bird that looks smaller than its 6.25 inches. It is sometimes impossible to distinguish from the sand because of its light color. This mercurial bird zips away vanishing right in front of my eyes.
Monday, 9:22 a.m.
I literally stumble on two snowy plovers resting in a slight depression. Literally hidden in plain sight. The first is very pale while the second has a pale tan back and is tagged. They both have dark markings on the brow, around the eye and the side of the upper breast, especially the second bird. I look around carefully to see if there are any others because they blend into the sand so well. On at least one occasion I’ve looked at one or two only to miss another one or two snowys nearby.
Monday, 12:15 p.m.
The tide is out and there are two snowys, perhaps the same ones, scurrying along. They stop and one appears to “melt” into the light sand. One is next to some green and red weed, where they seem to stay while the other is near something sponge-like. Why the snowys stand next to dual colored weed is a mystery as the human eye is drawn to red. I file this bit of information away and keep meandering.
Meandering allows me long looks at birds. It also allows me to absorb and process information that gives me a larger profile of their behavior. While walking I can slip into a reverie and my mood becomes mellow. Days like this also allow me to recharge my batteries. I’ll take ‘em when I can get ‘em.