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A Bird’s Eye View: April 5, 2012

Avian Standoff on a Florida Beach

There are times when birding that I find something that allows me to walk away emotionally and intellectually richer. One morning this past winter I walked out to the tip of Beer Can Island, the northernmost part of Longboat Key, and into one of those times. There I found an unfolding avian spectacle, which both gripped and puzzled me.

There are a number of turkey vultures on the tip of a sand spur and nearby are a snowy egret and a little blue heron. There’s a solitary sandpiper, and true to its name, the 8.5-inch sandpiper is alone patrolling the muddy edges of the shore. The bird, nicknamed “tip-up” is predictably moving its rear up and down. It takes off over the lagoon and that’s when I notice that at the very edge of the muddy sand spit is an osprey clutching a large silver fish with wide black stripes and bright red where its head should be. Less than two feet from the osprey is a turkey vulture with eyes only for the fish.

What probably happened was that the osprey dove feet first into the water and came up with the fish, a sheepshead porgy. The osprey, large at 23, inches, tried unsuccessfully to gain height carrying the fish, which was too heavy. The “fish-hawk” then settled on dragging it to the sand spit. Ospreys usually like to carry their catch to the bare branch of a tree or mangrove where they can eat it without being harassed.

The little blue heron is the first to come close, ridiculously close. However it is no threat and the osprey bends down to eat, ignoring the blue as it passes by. The raptor pauses as the turkey vultures, waiting patiently, edge closer. The scene is reminiscent of hyenas on the African plain waiting for a lion to leave its kill. Ospreys work very hard to get a fish. I’ve seen them dive and come up with their claws empty time after time. This bird of prey, standing on its kill, isn’t readily going to give it up.

I leave for a short while and come back in time to see the little blue heron fly to the shore on which I’m standing. In the water near the osprey is a newcomer, the reddish egret. This uncommon bird is offering the closest and clearest view I’ve had of it this winter. Unbelievable. The reddish stays perhaps two minutes and flies to the far side of the lagoon where wings partially outstretched and cupped, it goes into its “loopy” dance of hunting aquatic prey.

The six turkey vultures move closer with one or two making moves for the fish. Despite being backed up to the water with the tide coming in, the osprey faces its tormentors, wings partly spread and flapping. Then, for good measure, it menaces the scavengers. Is it this embattled warrior’s last stand? I’d like to see a resolution because the sun is now out and it’s getting uncomfortably warm and I’m running low on water. I’m also barefoot and have no protection from the small, sharp cactus burrs on the sand. In addition, when I sit, a few have become embedded in my shorts. Ouch.

Now there’s less than a foot between the osprey and the vultures. One of the turkey vultures goes behind the osprey but the others do nothing in the front. Then from the air comes more bad news. Another vulture descends. This one is chunkier than the turkey vulture, has distinctive white wing tips and a wrinkled gray head. It’s a black vulture, a close cousin to the turkey vulture. A second black vulture descends and a third comes in. Black vultures are known to be aggressive around a kill. The party is really on. The tide is now beginning to cover the sand and I can barely see the fish.

Soon a great egret and a few laughing gulls have arrived. Now the osprey and the egret square off. Tall at 39 inches, the egret bends its long frame and leans in with its rapier-like yellow bill trying to pluck some of the fish from the osprey’s grasp. The osprey stands with its hooked bill open, facing the egret. Both menacingly spread their wings. It’s a dramatic duel. Suddenly the osprey drags the fish into the shallow water. Will it somehow summon the strength to lift off into the air with it? Is this the end I’ve been hoping for? No. The osprey drags the fish back to the sand.

In retrospect, I had probably been assuming that its sheer number of adversaries would wear down the osprey. That’s partially why I didn’t realize it, but with this move, the embattled but gallant osprey had probably won. Now there are only three turkey vultures and the three black vultures. Two of the blacks are now jousting with each other. I’ve been here for over an hour and this stand-off may last hours more. I want to stay to the end but I can’t. Reluctantly I walk away, but as morning becomes afternoon, cannot resist doubling back for one last look.

At the scene there is only one turkey vulture and the three black vultures. One of the blacks is now bending its knees and stretches, inches from the ground, in an effort to get a small piece of flesh. It pulls back when the osprey feints. I don’t know how long this will go on but the osprey has won the right to finish its catch even if is going to be harassed by a dwindling few vultures. And I’ve accidentally witnessed something that has left me richer for the experience, not to mention provided material for a column that I can’t wait to sit down and write.