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A Bird’s Eye View: February 2, 2012

Avian Feast at the Celery Fields  

The Celery Fields in Sarasota are 300 acres of water and wetlands that are a birding “hotspot.” Last winter they were undergoing extensive renovation, making some areas inaccessible. However there was a huge flooded area where my wife and I found an avian feast.

Late one February afternoon, I bring our car to a halt on the side of an empty road there and whisper to my wife that there’s a large raptor unusually close to us. A red-shouldered hawk is on a post about 25 feet away. It takes all our stealth to get out of the car and take our binoculars from the trunk without scaring off the bird. Using the car as cover we settle down to watch the hawk.

The red-shouldered looks at us through one large eye, determines that we are no threat and looks away. It’s exciting to be this close to a bird that we don’t often see. The added tension that it may fly at any moment makes us drink in its features. The deeply hooked bill is bright yellow at the base; the breast a pale rust; and the belly is darker with broader reddish streaks over white. The red-shoulder is red/brown and looks like it’s made from shoe polish. The dark back seems to be layered in sections. The long tail has alternating black and white bands. The legs are thick and yellow. Three times the red-shoulder flies to the ground pawing at something, first with its right foot, then its left. There’s something in these acts, which transforms the raptor into something of a comic figure.

Across the road in a huge flooded area is an array of water birds. There are numerous glossy ibises, many of which seem almost black, possibly a result of the strong south Florida light. These birds are in fact, dark chestnut colored and often show iridescent green. The neck and shoulders of one are rust while its rear and back are dark. The backs of others seem to have large feathered sections that resemble the back of a turtle.

A few yellow-legs, which are stately large sandpipers, grace the water. There’s no time to admire them as in a nearby section of the smooth-as-glass water are what seem to be two dozen short-billed dowitchers, whose bills are actually quite long. These birds, uncommon here in winter, are feeding so intensely that those bills, often buried to the hilt, never come out of the water long enough for a good look. Several male ruddy ducks, rare here in winter, are swimming and diving. There are also some hooded mergansers, also diving ducks.

Here and there are herons and egrets. A tricolored heron, wine, gray and yellow, neck extended, glides past tall grasses. Nearby is an elegant snowy egret with legs that are black in front and yellow in back. A great blue heron and a great egret are each alone in different sections

Between two massive mounds of earth is an army of coots, black duck-like swimmers with white bills and dark red eyes that are splashing and feeding. On a bumpy slope of one of those mounds are some coots pecking at the earth, most however are resting. There’s something about the white bills, and glowing amber eyes of these black-bodied birds, when they’re gently paddling, that gets me.  

Further away, my wife spots a mass of white. Looking through our birding scope I swallow hard, as that mass is over 200 white pelicans that have enormous yellow/orange bills. We’ve never seen so many in one place. Only a few are standing while most are sitting. Overhead, in a perfect arrow-shaped formation, come three wood storks, with the now lowering sun on them. This shallow water may provide good fishing for the storks, which are on the endangered species list. Female boat-tailed grackles, tawny and lean like feathered greyhounds, are clumped together on a mud flat near some aquatic vegetation. Dozens of tree swallows, looking like flying sardines, are over the water.

Part two of our ritual of going to the Celery Fields is dinner. My wife tells me she’s hungry but is willing to stay as long as I want. I get the hint. I look at my watch in what seems like just a few minutes later. To my surprise a half-hour has passed. Just then atop a newly planted palm tree, a male boat-tailed grackle calls. It sounds like the dinner bell. Enough’s enough. Walking to our car there are cows and several cattle egrets moving into the field where we saw the red-shouldered hawk. One egret is at the foot at a cow’s leg, which looks like a pillar of an ancient temple. The egret walks away inches from the feeding cow’s eye. Starting to drive, we head into a curve where the red-shouldered hawk is perched on a bare tree in a corner of the cow field. I slow up. The raptor, probably in search of its dinner, lifts off the branch. Here it comes and there it goes!

Soon we are at Miss Saigon, a favorite Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Sarasota. My wife has a chicken stir-fry dish with vegetables while I dip into a meal-in-itself, bowl of vegetable soup with rice noodles and chicken. We talk over what we’ve seen and I say that the Celery Fields were never better than they were today. I always say that and it’s always true. It’s also part of the ritual of birding the Celery Fields.