Under Morning Skies

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Above a male kestrel. Note the black streaks by the eye which help shade sunglare.
Above a male kestrel. Note the black streaks by the eye which help shade sunglare.

I never know what I’’ll  see when I go birding. Foggy days bring mystery, while a day under a sky filled with pebbly clouds can bring scores of birds that lead to a practical idea.Click here for more bird photos by Michael Givant

Mysterious Fog

Fog is often found on south Florida beaches in winter. This morning two ring-billed gulls come through the vapor. One has its bill open showing a bold, blood red mouth. They both land on the sand. One with its head tilted upward, neck pumping back and forth lets out a mournful gull cry so perfect for this shroud covered morning. The mass of gulls, terns and shorebirds that I call the “assembled multitude” are coming steadily one and two at a time. Royal terns with dagger-like orange/yellow bills, smaller sandwich terns with yellow tipped black bills, Forster’s terns with black “eye masks,” all come out of the soft fog. The scene is primeval.

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Near the far end of the beach is a small, bare tree. At its top, on a tiny branch, perches a male kestrel, our smallest falcon. Its Monet-like rust and gray colors stand out even in the fog. There are small black vertical streaks near its eye that help to prevent sun glare. This nine-inch falcon sometimes called the “killy hawk” because of its piercing killy, killy killy call, hunts insects and small rodents, sometimes hovering above them.

These birds of prey are surprisingly fast fliers. I once saw a kestrel that looked as if it was about to become a meal for a peregrine falcon, a bird that can dive at 200 mph. Astonishingly the smaller kestrel went to missle mode and disappeared into a pale blue sky as the peregrine broke off the chase.

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Eight sanderlings, the most faithful of shorebirds, seem to magically come out of the fog, gliding to the sand. It’s as if they came in on invisible silk parachutes. They are here to feed at the shoreline. Snowy plovers small and very pale are almost impossible to see in sunlight when motionless, as they blend in so well with the sand. Seeing them in for is even trickier. I practically stumble over them. What I at first think is a snowy I incorrectly dismiss as being a sand mound. Then three snowys start to walk away as I approach. A fourth bird appears with them, another sanderling.

Soon the clouds become so dark that it seems like twilight, not morning.

Under a Pebbly Sky

The next morning is cool and breezy with the sky a carpet of pebbly clouds. A dozen brown pelicans are diving and some are coming up with pouches filled with fish. Their dark browns and whites are in contrast to the blue sky and green ocean. A royal tern, large at 20-inches with an eye-catching yellow/orange bill, dives at a 90-degree angle into the water, coming up with a small silver fish. It flies toward the beach and turns out to sea. Following it leads my eye to forty-two black scoters, chunky diving ducks with  bulbous bills, all flying, wings beating fast. They are followed by twenty more, then four more and then another ten. I couldn’t have seen this yesterday because of the fog. They are super rare here and have become the birding event of the season. They can dive as well as easily fly to escape being disturbed. From what are they fleeing?

Above a female red-breasted merganser.
Above a female red-breasted merganser.

Later there are sixty-two black scoters herded together, all drifting. They come ashore riding gentle waves on a calm sea. Once on their bellies the scoters dig their spade shaped bills into soaking wet sand for mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic insects. The place that they are feeding is their favorite spot on a lightly trafficked section of the beach. Looking at them through binocs, the place they’ve landed looks bigger, more isolated and desolate because of the seaweed filled shore line. A late arrival comes flying in as if propelled by an invisible water chute. Some are starting to leave on the backwash of the waves then riding over the incoming surf like miniature tugboats. Two men are walking toward them. The whole group lifts up at a 45-degree angle flying over the waves. As they do it some seem to “skip” their webbed feet over the water and the flock keeps going out to sea. These birds are definitely human averse.

 

Above you get the sense of the size and power of these brown pelicans especially the one thrashing around.
Above you get the sense of the size and power of these brown pelicans especially the one thrashing around.

Comparing Diving Ducks

The brown pellys are still diving but are very close to black scoters. No wait, those are five red-breasted mergansers all in various stages of brown. These too are diving ducks but they take fish. Later I again see three mergansers that I again initially mistake for scoters.  These two ducks are worth comparing as they are visually different. The scoter are 19-inches, black and stocky while the mergansers are 23-inches, long and streamlined. The knobby yellow “butter-bill” of the male scoter may be visible while it is likely that the green crest of the male merganser and its rust breast will be visible. The latter is a reason that one of the old nicknames for the red-breasted is “sea robin.” The scoters dive for blue mussels using both wings and feet to swim. The red-breasted mergansers also dive, but for fish. They have backward facing serrations in their mouths which are similar to teeth and give the merganser a strong grip on the fish. That has led to another nickname, “saw-bill.”

Above female red-breasted mergansers.
Above female red-breasted mergansers.

A little light bulb goes on in my head. Why not make this comparison, or a similar one with cormorants, also black divers that take fish that are common here, part of one of my birding class’s field trips? The more I think about it the more I like the idea because it’s doable and practical. Hey, you never know what’ll appear out of the fog or under a pebbly sky.