Sightings On A Florida Beach

An American avocet. Check out that upturned bill.
An American avocet. Check out that upturned bill.

The morning air is crisp, the sun’s shadows are hard. My wife and I are congratulating ourselves for getting out to Whitney Beach at 8:15 AM. Then we see a tall man in a familiar looking floppy hat who has been scanning the ocean with a high powered birding scope.

Forster's tern in winter plumage.
Forster’s tern in winter plumage.

On The Lookout

My friend and birder extraordinaire, John has been out for an hour looking for black scoters, diving sea ducks, which were sighted here twelve days ago. Their appearance has become a major birding event, bringing birders who wouldn’t ordinarily be here to the beach because these birds almost never come this far south. John’s seen them this morning. He asks if the American avocet that I saw yesterday was flying with a flock of red knots. The strikingly beautiful avocet, uncommon here, appeared out of nowhere, causing me to look twice to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating. No, it wasn’t flying with the turnstones. I wonder why he wants to know but forget to ask him.

Above a laughing gull with a puzzling food that resembles beef jerky.
Above a laughing gull with a puzzling food that resembles beef jerky.

A large flock of thirty or more “peeps,” which is an all purpose term for small brown shorebirds, is flying close to shore. This group consists primarily of red knots, a dull moderate sized sandpiper, and some ruddy turnstones. These birds sometimes feed together at the water’s edge, probing the sands for small shells.

Overhead a royal tern calls loudly with a fish in its bill and quickly flies away. Later a royal, perhaps the same one, is flying low over the water with another in pursuit. They land and the one with the fish looks like it is about to eat it. Then the first royal walks to the second one who takes it. The first one then flies off without the fish and the second one with the fish follows. I’m confused. Was this a mating gesture or an attempt to feed a juvenile that doesn’t yet hunt?

A male black scoter and several females leaving the beach.
A male black scoter and several females leaving the beach.

Foggy And Surreal   

The next morning is foggy, windy and the temperature not quite sixty. It’s hooded sweatshirt, nylon vest, watch cap and shorts weather. I love walking not quite warm enough. It’s invigorating and sharpens my senses. No one’s here; just me and the birds.  Seventeen black scoters are quietly paddling out into pea soup.  A male snowy plover, all 6.25-inches of it zips along the beach, stopping at a mound where it “hiccups,” raising its head and neck up and down hard. It seems to have indigestion, remaining there a short time, then runs back to the water.

Hovering high above shallow water, a Forster’s tern, seemingly waits forever, then plunges down at a 90-degree angle. At the last second the bird just touches the water’s surface creating a small splash, aborts the dive and flies off. I often see Forster’s diving here. Their plunges usually end in an aborted dive or the bird coming up without having gotten a fish. I’m often concerned that the water is too shallow and the tern will injure itself. However they know what they’re doing.

Female black scoters.
Female black scoters.

By the dunes there is a puzzling pile of red strand-shaped food that resembles beef jerky. Laughing gulls, the most notoriously aggressive birds on the beach, fly in a few at a time scooping it up as the pile diminishes like red blood drying in the sand.  Others reject the snack throwing it down. One laugher chomps down hard and finally swallows but needs to take a few sips of water. It stands there like the food is hard on its stomach and might be wondering “should I have eaten that?” Bizarre. Later when I return, the only thing which remains is a pink stain in the sand.

Egrets And Gulls

At the beach’s other end by a seawall is a limping snowy egret. The limp seems more pronounced now than in the past few days. These birds walk stealthily along the shoreline in shallow water, looking for small fish, then suddenly plunge their dagger-like bills into the water. This requires dexterity that the injured bird may not have. The impaired left leg is raised higher in an arch putting more pressure on its right leg. The effect is to make a slow “wheel” like motion. The lean white bird with the black legs and yellow feet, turns in a hunched position staring straight ahead.  Suddenly it lifts off flying down the foggy beach.

A great blue heron suddenly splashes its head and body into the water as if it’s going for a swim. It comes up with nothing. This bird appears to be a clumsy or immature hunter. Later it walks to a sand mound on the beach where it pulls hard on a weed and then flies. What did it expect to find in the weed?

A lesser black-backed gull has a whole fish with a stiff tail and is vigorously eating. It lifts the fish, pulling at the flesh, walking away to rinse its can opener-like bill. A nearby laughing gull stares at the prize. Then comes a second laugher that is chased by the first one. The message is clear: I’m next. A few more laughers come. The black-backed continues eating, goes to the water and makes a run at one of the would be diners. Soon the laughers are gone and a leisurely meal awaits the black-backed.

The sun has come out and I remove a layer. The water is now light green with continuous waves gliding to shore. A cold, foggy morning has became a full one of birding and become a lazy, sunny afternoon. The black-backed is gone and a ring-billed gull is now feeding on the fish. Tomorrow it will be only white bone with a tail.  A turkey vulture lands, walks around a bit, finds nothing and flies off. Man, you should have been here earlier.  Like it cares.

Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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