Wild Weather Brings Better Birding


These are two breeding brown pelicans. The one in front has its pouch, which can hold up to three gallons of water, extended and is swallowing fish it has just caught.
These are two breeding brown pelicans. The one in front has its pouch, which can hold up to three gallons of water, extended and is swallowing fish it has just caught.

Longboat Key, Florida

Jan. 6th, 2014

It is 4:00 PM, the temperature is 57-degrees, the wind 22 mph and gusting higher. I’ve been birding all day through three dramatic weather changes. The worse the weather has gotten the better the birding has become.

Fog, Heat & Cold

On the beach in fog as thick as a scene from an English countryside murder mystery, I cannot see nearby houses nor much in front of me. Something on the ground becomes faintly visible. It looks like small mounds of bright white sand. The white are large royal terns. Nearby are some brown forms which are a group of twenty-five feeding and bathing red knots. Two breeding brown pelicans are very close to shore, riding the swells, diving and then coming up. They have filtered most of the water from their enormous pouches and are swallowing fish. One has its yellowish bill wet to its base and the frosty yellow on its head separated from the white. Thirteen herring gulls, large birds with wet pink legs stand in shallow water, their broken images reflected in it.

The fog has partially lifted and the sun appears in a cloudy blue sky. I take off my outer shirt as its gotten warm. A bit later my wife and I leave the house and the wind has picked up. On the beach there is an enormous, ominous dark gray cloud coming toward us. At one edge there’s a shape that resembles a tornado funnel. The pellys are still feeding. However another group are flying away and a second group are also flying away in another direction. What do they know that we don’t? The sky-engulfing cloud with ragged edges is coming our way. The wind picks up; the sun disappears. Streams of sand are blowing in our faces. Its turned cold and two fat drops of rain fall on our heads. Earlier we had heard on the weather report that it would turn colder and very windy. I never thought that I’d be directly in the path of a fast moving cold front but here we are at ground zero. This the Weather Channel sans TV.


A Wetland’s Denizens

An hour plus later I am walking a 32-acre wetland preserve. In a tidal pool overgrown with mangroves I see a pink form and its reflection in the water. It’s a roseate spoonbill or, as I call it, the bird from Mars. It has dark red slashes on its pink sides and an overly large Dixie-Cup spoon shaped bill. The bird walks sturdily on white legs slashing its bill into the water and sweeping it side to side at least a 180-degree arc. Much of the bird is hidden by mangroves. I’m getting only partial glimpses of its partly yellow face, thick tubular neck and legs. The real constant is the bird’s pink reflection in the water. I cannot pull myself away because this is a totally private moment for the spoonbill. If it’s aware of me there is no evidence. These birds will often fly unless they are  feeding.


On a walk out to Sarasota Bay there’s a lone female, red-breasted merganser unusually close. Its back is dull with clear areas of white and a light rust breast which goes up to her eye level on the cheek where, above it the color is a darker brown. I’ve never seen this before and I’m impressed. The bird dips it bill in the cold water and looks at me as if to say, “This, is my turf.” A brown pelican is flying fast, very low to the water with its bill out and its full 79-inch wing span at its max resembling an old-fashion seaplane.  Above a turkey vulture is battling the wind. In a tangle of mangroves is a great egret. Walking stealthily, or so I think, to get a better view, it flies. That’s on me. Three yellow-rumped warblers are searching a tree branch for insects. They fly and the wind whooshes loudly in the trees followed by the sharp crack of dried palm leaves.


A Shrill Osprey

I stop in my tracks on a broken shell path. There’s a little blue heron on the shoreline and a woodpecker working above me. The little blue is quite dark with a wine colored neck and breast. Wine colored breeding plumes hang from its breast and back as it quietly hunts, going into the water and coming back on shore. Its black eyes rimmed by yellow on either side of the bill are focused directly at me for long seconds. Finding no threat, it slowly walks off. Just then two calls, shriller and higher pitched than I’ve ever heard sound. Thirty feet above is the answer: an osprey.


I’ve had hundreds of views of ospreys but this one, even though the bird’s rump is facing me is the best ever. The raptor’s yellow eyes blaze, as the ear-piercing calls come out of the bird’s cruelly hooked bill. The are beyond belief. The branch on which the raptor is perched sways in the wind as its manacle-like dark toes hold tight to the limb. Now the calls are coming more frequently and are longer. The “fish-hawk” may be calling its mate. The brown wings are slightly apart from the body and each feather stands out. The white feathers on its belly are rounded and ruffled. Now the tail is shaking and spreading wider than I can believe. Overhead clouds keep coming. If Homer Winslow painted birds in his stormy seascapes, this is what an osprey would look like. I’d stay but I have to pick up my wife. As I leave, the ear-splitting calls resound again. The wilder the weather the better the birding.



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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