Weather is a birder’s constant and variable companion. Fog and rain obscure the landscape but allow us to see birds in ways we haven’t before. Bright sunlight illuminates birds with exceptional clarity but can also play tricks on your eyes rendering birding into art forms.
Eaten By Fog
Fog is mysterious, perhaps scary. Is there a better stage setting for a murder mystery? I’ve walked in thick fog that slowly envelops a beach then clears. Until this year I was never in fog that came and cleared, then came back again and cleared, all in one morning. Birding in fog is like getting too close to an impressionist painting. Everything is distorted. I think that I see two sanderlings. Attempting to put my binoculars on them, they aren’t there. Where’d they go? I scan the area with my naked eyes. There they are. The seaweed obscured them. Both sanderlings are backing up slowly toward the water. Then they walk slowly forward into the fog. Weird. Sanderlings usually race across the beach chasing outgoing waves and pecking the wet sand for morsels. These two look like they are taking a romantic walk.
The water is a calm dull green. A brown pelican appears, long wings bent back and its enormous bill, both out of focus in the “soup.” An apparition. It doesn’t dive or circle. It just disappears; eaten by the fog. A ruddy turnstone carries a small. “cat’s paw” shell, throws it on the sand, pecks away quickly and leaves just as fast. Walking over I peer at the shell which has a tiny hole where the turnstone extracted its meal.
The next morning it has rained. The sky is a dark mauve above which are wind driven, billowing clouds and above them is a light mauve horizon. It’s clearing. This seascape is so vivid and stark that I just look. At moments like these the weather renders the landscape a bold if not stark painting.
A few afternoons later it is gray and rainy. My wife and I are getting out of the car in a supermarket parking lot. A great blue heron flying only a few feet above the cars comes out of the gray. In flight the bird at 46-inches with a six-foot wingspan has long black trailing legs, a long javelin-like bill, and slim bent back wings. It resembles a flying gray system of rods and shafts devoid of feathers. The yellow eye is visible in the gloom. This is stark, spare cubism.
Another morning it’s cloudy. The swells in the Gulf are long and low. Bottle-nosed dolphins have been swimming, occasionally breaking the surface showing their dark gray backs and fins. People stare out to sea following them. As the dolphins’ bodies vanish below the surface there are two flat almost silvery areas on a swell. These are the dolphins’ “footprints” left after they dive. As the swell lengthens the “footprints” become almost massive. If you missed the dolphins, you’d probably not even notice these areas. The larger they get, the more I focus on them and the ability of the water to stretch them. This is a study in texture and form.
Bright sunlight in a clear sky can highlight a bird in a way not ordinarily seen. On a clear sunny day morning I can see droplets of water on a red-breasted merganser’s feathers or on its bill. The bold black and white bodies of royal terns stand in stark contrast to their yellow bills which appear to be made of plastic. However in such conditions colors and textures can “lie.” An osprey is dark brown and white while its underwings are tan. One is circling over the Gulf with its head down directly facing the sun. The “fish-hawk” is brown and white but appears to have a yellow head. This is an optical illusion created by the sun. If a bird with these colors were a painting, it would be a surreal one. The osprey is joined by another. My bird glides right, then to my astonishment glides left as if it were on a ball bearing. As the “fish-hawk” comes closer there are two long “mounds” on the bird’s body where the bases of its legs are held. This is a detail not easily seen and a benefit of excellent light.
On another occasion full sunlight illuminates the brown tail of an osprey making it look practically red. Again surrealism. Another osprey joins it and both circle faster, wildly. Now the sun shows the raptor’s bold black horizontal tail stripes. The osprey’s wing feathers are highlighted, particularly the splayed wingtips, adding a sense of excitement. One of the ospreys now leaves and the other comes closer with its breast and belly showing. The bird’s under carriage is white not a sand color, which it now has. The underwings are a dark sand color but their intricate dark design is gone, again an optical illusion.
On Florida’s West Coast there’s usually a breeze which can be strong on the beach sometimes sending sand in swirls. How do birds deal with it? The same as they do at rest sometimes. By turning their heads away. On several occasions while walking I’ve noticed mounds that seemed to have brown edges. Upon getting closer those “mounds,” were groups of sanderlings, light brown and bright white sandpipers, grouped together. Their small heads, turned to their backs with bills resting on feathers. In my mind’s eye I wasn’t seeing birds but photos of repetitive geometric forms like beach chairs or boats.
These moments illustrate that birding is about more than identifying feathered flying creatures. Art is found not just in museums, galleries and coffee table books but also by looking through binoculars at avian beings.