Longboat Key, Florida, Nov. 2013
I was at the beginning of my return trip, walking over a half-mile drawbridge, when the words to an old Judy Collins song, From a Distance, dimly started cranking in my head. Toward the end of bridge they were spilling out.
” We are instruments marching in a common band.”
I’m filled with energy despite having been out in the heat and humidity of South Florida for nearly four hours. Looking at the dark blue water there’s a sense of elation and joy that comes from feeling part of something larger. A feeling that I’ve had only a few times. What brought this on?
It wasn’t a lovely first winter laughing gull that had just flown under the Longboat Pass drawbridge, nor the cormorants that I’d photographed on my initial walk over the bridge. Not the great blue heron, nor a snowy egret or the white ibis all of which posed for my camera on the sands below. Those birds certainly added to my birding high. Without a doubt it was the elusive peacocks that I had just watched for forty minutes prior to the bridge walk that did it. Peacocks? Yes, shimmering sentient blue beings.
It started in early morning with winds gusting to 30 mph, with my wife and I forgoing our usual walk on the beach. Instead we begin our “chapel trek” as my wife calls it, on Gulf of Mexico Drive. Before we had gotten onto the street I spotted a kestrel, our smallest falcon, on a power line. That is a favorite perch of these swift predators. The kestrel never directly faced me as I walked as close to it as I dared, fearing it would fly. There were the rust and gray colors and the black markings on the bird’s face to shield its eyes from the sun. I could just barely see the kestrel’s small hooked bill.
On another wire are thirty grackles, black forms with long wide tipped tails that are resting. On a palm tree near the wire is a male red-bellied woodpecker which oddly has a red cap but no discernible red belly. If it stood still we might be able to get a look at the pinkish flush on it’s belly but that’s not possible. When this bird calls it makes the unmistakable sound of a squealing rubber doll. The woodpecker hugs the tree with its feet and tail while searching for insect under the bark. Its long dagger-like bill looks like it could easily tear apart the bark.
At the chapel, the cross on the steeple has a new ornament, an osprey which has a fish. There isn’t much room up there to eat a fish and ospreys like to take their catch to a tree limb which they use both as perch and plate. This one is looking around and I think it is just waiting to eat but instead it calls. Then I notice something odd. From what I can see the fish is stiff not supple. Humm? A church steeple, a bird of prey and a “stiff.” This has the makings of a murder mystery.
After the chapel walk my wife goes home and I go to a quiet residential section of Longboat Key called the Village. It is here that peacocks, which are not indigenous birds, have settled. However, in eight previous winters I’ve seen them only three times. Walking through the quiet streets I go to Sarasota Bay where on a wharf are the usual suspects, laughing gulls and brown pelicans resting. However off a side street I see a large mundane brown turkey-like bird with some iridescent green on the neck and breast. This is a peahen and she’s got two pea youngsters with her, one large and one small. I watch mom and one of the youngsters as they walk and feed among some bushes. Eager to get a picture, I follow, which causes her to get the other youngster and walk down a dirt path where they disappear into some shrubbery. Never do they run from me but they do walk purposefully.
Around the corner and down the block are two peacocks. They are large with bright iridescent blue necks, breasts, bellies and little heads with a fan shaped crest on their tiny heads. They come across the street with one pausing to look at me seemingly curious. It however doesn’t purposefully walk away but strolls to a lawn. They then go to the bushes. Either the shrubbery is a source of food, privacy or both. I’m excited, if not amazed, as they saunter across the lawn side by side, nibbling at the grass. Their big bodies are so blue and they just gleam. Their tails appear to be longer than their bodies and are a bride’s train of greenery, dark aqua and yellow. These males are the most gentle souls as they walk along the side of the house eating, never hurrying. Finally turning the corner by a screened in pool, then walking slowly, they disappear into some shrubbery.
As they are leaving I focus my binoculars on their faces because until this point I’ve primarily been photographing them, probably spending 40 minutes doing so. It’s then that I notice white and black indentations around their eyes. I wish I’d watched and studied them more, especially their colors, crests and the length of their tails in relation to their bodies. But there’s always next time.
I’ve explained everything except why Judy Collins? Well, her music and I go back almost half a century to when I was a graduate student. Her voice and music spoke to me then like none other ever had. It still does, but now, through birds.