Longboat Key, Florida,
Feb. 23, 2014
For several days the beach has been awash in fog, at times shrouding all but a few feet in front of one. That white stuff turns the beach into a theatrical stage where avian performances are ongoing.
I hear three royal terns before I see them, as two high notes pierce the fog. Their white bodies, bent back wings and yellow bills are clear enough as they come overhead. Where am I though? There’s only a few feet of visibility. I know that I’m close to the beach’s north end when I see the dark mass of a mangrove. Beyond it should be the rocks against a sea wall. Several yards more and there is the mass of large rocks that look like they are from Mars. Then over the wall comes a white form that lands in the water. Am I on the battlements of Hamlet’s castle and is that his father’s ghost? It’s a white ibis, one of a dozen that nest a half mile from here. Within seconds there are eleven of the white forms in the water all converging toward the rocks. They are probing the water for shells. Shakespeare on the beach.
Walking down the beach there are a mass of forty willets, large, dull brown sandpipers. Some are probing the wet sand for shells. A willet has one at the tip of its long chop sticks-like bill and carries it away. Most of them are huddled in a mass, away from the water, standing on one leg with their bills resting on their backs and eyes closed. This is the largest number of these birds that have been here this week. Perhaps they like the fog.
In the front of a large grouping of gulls and terns stand two laughing gulls. Their heads have morphed into summer black from winter gray and their wing joints are held slightly away from their bodies. One turns and walks in a small circle, but near the other. There is a cry coming from one. They have eyes only for each other. These two are potential mating partners or for all I know they may be “engaged.” Little laughers should soon be following.
Feeding In The Fog
A ring-billed gull comes from the water hurriedly carrying what looks to be a little silver fish with a short body but two long tails. I’ve never seen anything like this before. The fish is hanging limply but the ring-bill doesn’t swallow it. Instead the gull walks toward the water quickly followed by another. Fog or not, it’s a Darwinian world out here and the ring-bill hastens away appearing to have swallowed its snack.
Far down the beach I see some large dark forms in a familiar place. Oystercatchers. These are large birds with black and dark brown sides, white breasts and long thick red bills. Here they feed for small clamshells in the surf digging vigorously sometimes up to their heads. These birds’ stomachs cannot take in a lot at once. They therefore feed and then rest in intervals. In walking to higher ground for their rest, four of five birds look normal but one’s walk is puzzling. Initially I chalk it up to resting at the water’s edge before regaining its regular gait. However that isn’t the case. Looking closely at the pink left leg and black toes of the oystercatcher, it appears stiff while the right one is supple. When I see it stop and then walk a few more paces, the left leg is clearly stiff. I don’t know what has happened. Perhaps it has sprained the leg. Since the bird is not obviously hindered, no one will likely notice or try to rescue it because it can fly. The leg will either heal on its own in time, get worse or perhaps it will remain this way. This injury might look worse to me in sunshine. Avian injuries are a part of birding which I find emotionally painful.
The Bright Seems Brighter
The next morning as I leave for the beach, one part of the sky is clouded over with the sun a white circle made eerie as three brown pelicans fly past. However, there’s blue sky and sun over the beach just across the street. After so many days of fog, everything seems so bright.
Eleven white ibis come over the rock wall, their bodies bright white and their black wing tips a sharp contrast to their white bodies. In this spot the day before they appeared as aberrations. There’s a group of royal terns; one especially catches my eye because of its bloodstained white body. The dark blood starts near the bird’s face, the color of wine on its white feathers and turning paler as it goes down its breast. I’ve never seen royal terns attack one another. It’s possible that another bird did it or that this was an accident incurred when it dove for a fish near some fishermen. The bird moves well and is not in any visible distress.
Walking the tideline I almost miss two lone sanderlings that are standing erect facing each other. Their tiny dark bills are nearly touching. This is some kind of courting interest. One walks slowly away sidewards never turning away. The other walks in a slight half circle and then walks toward the one that may be playing coy. Nothing happens but these two are still facing each other. Courtship, evidently takes time. There’s nothing Shakespearian about this. Romance on the beach is timeless. Nature’s theatrical stage is capable of hosting all kinds of theater. The trick is to get here when it’s happening.