Good birding is made up of moments; they can be seconds or minutes. They can come from seeing everyday birds. They can also come looking through fog into the eye of a bird looking back at you.
On the beach a ring-billed gull is eating when another flies in aggressively challenging it. These territorial disputes are usually short lived. The eater goes face to face, wings out with the intruder. But I’ve never seen what’s about to happen. Faster than I can really see it, the eater leaps over the intruder. Just like that it’s over. The intruder walks away as the victor triumphantly bellows. I have to pause and process this as I’ve never seen anything like it.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a sudden flash of three birds that are flying in, about to land. They are a striking white and rust brown striped shorebird. My brain instantly says American avocets. They are rare here but I saw one at this exact spot a month ago. My heart skips a beat. A repeat? As the birds land they morph into willets, a large sandpiper which is a dull gray brown. How’d I make that mistake? In flight their underwing pattern is a striking dark brown and white and is similar to that of the avocet.
However a week later an actual very rare bird shows up. A large group of terns, gulls, skimmers and shorebirds is here almost every morning. On the periphery is a smallish gull which has a tennis ball shaped head. The bird is simply “weird.” No other gull here has this round head. Nor here is any other gull’s head all white with a black spot behind the ear. Pink legs clinch it. This is a Bonaparte’s gull, named after Napoleon’s nephew, who was a zoologist. I first saw a Bonaparte’s here last winter and had this same feeling of strangeness then. That it is rare makes the moment thrilling. The Bonaparte’s stands in the water constantly looking around. Just when it seems to have settled down the gull takes off low over the Gulf in a long slight arch. This is just what the bird did last year.
My wife and I walk over a million birds’ footprints in the sand. There were a huge number of skimmers here before, displaced by the incoming tide. You couldn’t have known they were here unless you’d seen them, as we did. In a few minutes the wash of waves will leave their footprints only a memory. Actually they will become the memory of a memory.
We almost stumble over a snowy plover, a 6.25-inch bird. It’s so pale that it blends in with the sand and is extremely difficult to see. It was resting in a long depression like a tire track, something so simple and elementary. My wife sees another which seems to appear out of nowhere. She’s getting very good at it.
Another morning I’m out the door early and immediately there are two high pitched calls. I see the bulky brown form of a red-shouldered hawk flying out of a tree. It goes over a car and to the corner of a roof top where it stays a while. This is a welcome surprise as the red-shouldered doesn’t usually frequent condos. This is the pale Florida form of the red-shouldered, the palest of any form of this bird. The shoulders of this bird are a red brown but the head is a pale gray and the striated rufous breast is so pale that my eye always wants to make it look darker. This raptor usually hunts from a perch taking pocket-sized prey like voles, chipmunks, frogs, crayfish and small birds because of its small talons. It also takes snakes which can be harmful for smaller birds and their eggs. I try for a closer, better view but the raptor flies to a different tree. Bye, Bye.
Seeing In Fog
The following morning on the beach there’s dense fog. I see something but cannot tell if it’s a few mounds of sand or a large group of “peeps,” an all-purpose term for small brown shorebirds. Getting closer and looking through binoculars I see a large number of royal terns whose large white and gray forms are almost indistinguishable from the sand despite their large yellow bills. There are also twenty-five red knots all in the water feeding or flapping their wings, taking a bath. They are here quite often because of a staging area in Tampa little more than fifty miles away. The knots have one of the longest migrations, 9,300-miles from their Arctic summer breeding grounds to Tierra Del Fuego at the southern tip of South America where they winter.
An immature herring gull, dark brown and white, glides through the fog on wings that spread out nearly five-feet. It slows down to look at this ground-bound human. Ghostly but with bold browns, it dominates the scene and glides away. A few minutes later at a seawall the fog has partially cleared. Some herring gulls stand in shallow water, their broken images below them. Apparitions come to earth as an impressionist painting in progress.
Thirty-feet from shore are two breeding brown pelicans in the swells. They aren’t diving but their pouches are spread and they’re swallowing. Pale frosty yellow is the color of the breeding brown pelican’s neck. It’s like a blooming flower. One turns and looks directly at me. At that moment there’s something mysterious and wise about the bird. Its humungous bill looks like wood and is compressed near the base creating mystery. The eye looks calm with the wisdom of ages. I chuckle a bit. Birding in the fog is mysterious not simply because of skewed vision. What you see is also about what you bring in your mind’s eye.