Before my wife and I go out birding on the beach on Longboat Key, I make sure I’ve got binoculars, note pad, camera and water. My wife who likes to travel light, makes sure she’s put on sunscreen. Mere yards from our door she notices a raptor shape on the branch of a tree which then turns around showing a striated breast. I take out my camera but this red-shouldered hawk will not tolerate an early morning paparazzo and flies. Wanna know how rare it is to see a red-shouldered hawk outside your door in South Florida? This is our 9th consecutive year here and only the second time I’ve seen one here, and my wife sees it without binoculars!
On the beach my wife spots a bottle-nosed dolphin’s back and tail rising out of the Gulf of Mexico. Then there’s another one going in the opposite direction, which abruptly turns around to catch up to the first dolphin. Deciding to follow them, we start walking in their direction only to find a laughing gull pecking at a sardine-like fish which it soon abandons.
By a seawall there’s the familiar figure of a snowy egret. This bird has been here alone all week. The snowy is 24-inches, lithe, lean and impossibly elegant. It’s called “golden slippers” because of its black legs and yellow feet, which are used to stir the muck and raise prey. This one has a problem with its left leg. Something was wrong when I first saw it walk. Then I noticed that its left foot was never flat on the sand as was its right foot. Later I saw that the bird had difficulty bringing its left foot forward. It limps slightly. I have even photographed the position of its feet showing the difficulty.
My wife looks carefully at the snowy and thinks the injury is better. I look carefully with the binoculars and it appears to be holding its left foot further off the ground. Oddly the snowy’s moving OK. Injured birds are a fact of life. Calling a bird rescuer would be senseless, as this one can fly. It pains me to see a bird in distress but the snowy seems to be able to feed down here with little if any competition. I won’t interfere unless it becomes obviously worse.
My wife has started to go back and suddenly points to five sea ducks fairly close to shore. Where did they come from? Again, my wife’s no binoculars approach is working very well. Excited, I wonder if they aren’t the black scoters that showed up here four days ago that are extremely rare on the Gulf Coast and have birders coming from other counties to get a look at the unexpected northern visitors. They were near this spot several days ago. Putting my binoculars on them, I’m disappointed. They are however red-breasted mergansers, also diving ducks, but aren’t uncommon here. I get my camera out and get the best shots of these birds I’ve ever taken. At least my camera has been worth taking this morning.
Walking further up the beach there’s a great blue heron by a long temporary tidal pool. It is slowly walking and plunging its dagger-like bill into the shallow water for small fish, crayfish, crabs and aquatic insects which may be trapped there. This is the avian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. My wife has easily done her daily walk and goes back leaving me to roam the beach for another three hours.
The first thing I notice is a lone ruddy turnstone. They are a sandpiper with a slightly upturned bill that they use to turn over any stone, shell, leaf or weed that may have a morsel beneath it. They are hard to watch as they are speedy and almost always in constant motion, going from one object to another. This one is near some red weed apparently resting.
A brown pelican circles above the water coming lower and lower and then aborts what might have been a dive if it had seen fish. Later it plunges quickly into the water, at the last second turning in a slight corkscrew motion but comes up with nothing. There are no “assembled multitudes” of gulls, terns skimmers and assorted shorebirds as there usually are. However little by little they are gathering in favorite spots on the beach. Many seem to appear out of nowhere making skillful, sweeping descents and landing on the edges of the gathering mass or somewhere else where their landing will not disturb those already here. One that is already here is a laughing gull with a disturbing feature. It has lost its left foot, probably due to a monofilament fishing line accident. However the bird gets around very well on one leg and the stump of another. I’ve seen enough one legged wild birds to know how well they get around so I don’t feel uncomfortable with this one. I look at an immature herring gull that is standing on one leg but a close look with my binoculars shows the very tip of its foot and tiny black toes peeking out from the bird’s body. Oddly there are many first winter laughing gulls here with their still brown wings showing a contrast to their gray bodies. I sometimes muse how Monet might have painted their subtle coloring.
My binoculars have been useful this morning but there’s no doubt that this morning’s best observations have been made by my wife. I won’t encourage her to take her binoculars tomorrow morning. She’s an astute bird watcher and knows a good avian sighting when see sees it. Today may have been the start of a hot streak for her. I’ll just tag along for the ride.