Morning At An Avian Supermarket

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A Forster's tern in shallow water.
A Forster’s tern in shallow water.

If you want to see birds, morning is when they are most active as that’s when they feed. The beach across the street on Longboat Key, Florida, where my wife and I stay in the winter, is their Shop Rite. It specializes in fish, crab, mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects and occasionally human junk food.    

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What Did It Get?              

A ring-billed gull is in the water taking a bath. It rises up, moves sidewards and dips its head into the white foam, coming up with something rust colored. I can’t see what the gull got because the stiff breeze blows off my visor and I get it before the waves do. My guess is that the something was a seahorse which is a four-inch fish with a horse-like head whose habitat is shallow water. The ring-bill seems to be dancing with joy while flapping its wings. Must have been tasty.

Forster’s terns are slim with sharply bent back wings and dive for fish. They frequently hover above very shallow water, set against a blue sky and green water, read to dive. Sometimes they move on; other times the dive is aborted not long after it begins; other times the Forster’s will break off its dive at the last second, curving upward. Sometimes they go right into the shallow water at a 90-degree angle and I unnecessarily cringe for their safety. However they know what they are doing. But I cannot recall ever seeing one come up with a gleaming silver fish. Do they take it underwater?

Willets are large, medium brown sandpipers; lean as greyhounds and dull colored as dishwater. Except when they fly. In flight their underwings are a bold zig zag pattern of black and white. Their high pitched call seems powered by a Duracell battery. A lone willet flying in, its wing pattern clear as a photo, seems to stop in mid air as it touches down. As the willet’s wings fold against its body the pattern disappears and the bird becomes drab. Magical. Willets, individually feed on white coquina shells in shallow water in the morning. By 11:00 AM these guys are often grouped up after feeding like they are holding a convention.

Stilt sandpipers are uncommon here and confusing when I do see them because of  another sandpiper, the dunlin. Both are the same size and have a droopy tipped bill as do the stilts. It is the longer legs, for which the stilt sandpiper is named, that set the two apart. This one leans over sticking its long droopy tipped bill into the sand by some dried seaweed. It may be probing for an aquatic insect. Close by are a sanderling sitting in a depression, a willet, a black-bellied plover. Four different shorebirds in a small group. This would be a nice comparative exercise for my birding class.

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A willet in the water.

A royal tern goes into the shallow water and comes up with a cheese nacho which it quickly carries to a dune. Is that bird going to eat junk food? Meanwhile several hundred laughing gulls, the most aggressive birds on the beach with food in sight, are clumped up against a dune. The frenzied sight of a mass of white, gray and black suddenly flying to that spot makes me wonder if someone didn’t leave or throw something there. I always find the senseless excitement of so many laughers fighting to get a small amount of food to be troubling.

An osprey is flying low over the water. Something isn’t right. It looks to be packing a breakfast but I see no fish. If it doesn’t have a fish why isn’t it climbing? Ospreys always carry a fish “torpedo style” with the head forward. Now I see the problem. The osprey does have a fish and is holding it only by one foot with the rest dangling like an unwieldily rope. This might be only the second time I’ve ever seen a fish carried this way by an osprey.

Walking With A Shag

This is a double-crested cormorant nickname the "shag" because it takes fish by swimming underwater.
This is a double-crested cormorant nickname the “shag” because it takes fish by swimming underwater.

Cormorants are black diving birds with light orange colored bills and emerald green eyes that take fish underwater like baseball players “shag” fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. Thus, they are nicknamed “shags.” It is often only their slim necks and heads, looking like a submarine periscope, that are seen in the water. There’s a shag diving and swimming in the wave closest to shore. I’m at the end of my five-mile walk, looking forward to breakfast but decide to stay with the bird.  Tantalizingly close to shore it dives, comes up and is obscured by a wave. The cormorant comes up further ahead and farther out. A rough ride. It gets a small fish that is quickly swallowed. Again it comes up with a small fish at the tip of its hooked bill which is twisting so fast and furiously that it’s hard to believe. The fish is fighting for its life but has no chance of getting out of the tight trap.

The shag repeatedly dives coming up with its bill empty. It gets a third fish and swallows it so quickly that all I can see is its long neck showing a slight downward moving bulge. The cormorant is an extremely graceful diver and I can follow its feathered dark form as the bird travels just beneath the water’s surface. How can it swim in water so shallow? The bird sometimes gets so near that I think if I raised my hands over my head and fell into the water I could touch it. When I start thinking this way, it’s time to get off the beach and have breakfast.

When birds finish breakfast, they leave no dishes, no mess and no garbage. What the tide brings in, is what they eat. It’s a nifty system. I just wish they’d avoid junk food.