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A Bird’s Eye View: January 4, 2013

The Tidal Pools Of A Florida Beach

For eight years my wife and I have been staying near Whitney Beach on Longboat Key, Florida. For the first time it has two huge tidal pools, which I call Lake Victoria #1 and #2. These tidal pools, stretching for almost half a mile, not only have given this beach the look of a wild coast, but appear to have attracted more birds to this already avian rich beach.

On a recent morning thick fog covers the beach, making it mysterious. Two laughing gulls, a willet, a black-bellied plover and some brown pelicans are early morning habitués. Two ruddy turnstones, birds that turn over anything and everything, looking for a morsel, are at the end of lake Victoria #1. One is preening, the other digging. A black-bellied plover flies. I‘ve seen more of these birds in a few days here than in some winters and wonder if the tidal pools have attracted them.

There are two very large assembled multitudes of gulls, terns, skimmers and shorebirds, which are always here. Oddly this morning, Forster’s terns, which have a distinctive black arrow-shaped “eye patch” are grouped together in the front of one mass. There are seven red knots, the first I’ve seen this season. These birds are sandpipers that in summer have a distinctive rust breast and belly. In winter they have dull white bellies and lightly dotted breasts. They are all standing at the edge of a tidal pool, their still reflections highlighted in the water.

There’s a plump male snowy plover. Snowys are uncommon, mercurial birds that look smaller than their 6.25-inches. This is the ninth consecutive day in a row that I’ve seen at least one. In prior years I’d be lucky to have nine sightings the whole winter. A willet is in the middle of Lake Victoria #2. Small remains of a wave break into the pool sending the willet into the air. The large sandpiper’s, bold flashing white wing pattern makes circles as the bird flies a short distance.

There is a yellow-crowned night-heron standing still near Lake Victoria #2. This is a chunky 24-inch bird that is stunning in sunlight. While fog limits how far one can see, paradoxically, it highlights what one sees. The side of the face is black, in the center of which is a light yellow cheek patch and a white or yellowish crown. This one seems to have a brownish crown. Odd. The eye is amber and is riveted on something. The tidal pool has probably attracted it, as I’ve never before seen one on this beach. Walking back, I’m facing the silver remains of the sun on the water. The yellow-crown is still there and the light makes it seem like I’m watching the bird under a full moon. Over the Gulf of Mexico a dozen brown pelicans are flying side by side under the circle of a cloud-obscured sun into the shroud of fog.

An hour later the sun is out. A loon is very close to shore, partly submerged under a shallow wave. It goes back and forth, its back dark, a white patch on its neck, the bill thick and heavy, the eye amber colored. It travels in with a wave and dives into another going out. The northern, winter visitor doesn’t get anything but my wife, who is here now, has never seen one this close.

My wife soon notes the “beggar” and its host. These two birds are royal terns whose large bills are a yellow/orange. The “beggar” is a bird that I first noticed here a few years ago because of its partially bowed and supplicating posture and the fact that it incessantly squawked, holding its bill near to another royal. Frankly I don’t understand how the “host” bird has not been driven out of its mind. My wife asks how I know that “the beggar” is the same bird. Frankly, I’ve assumed so. But looking close at the two I see that “the beggar” has partially yellow legs and a tag on its right ankle. Royals have black legs so I’ll look for these ID marks next time.

We find another familiar sight. It’s what I believe to be an immature herring gull that has no left foot. This bird is wonderfully dexterous in spite of its handicap. This is the third year I’ve seen it here and I’m glad it has a ”home.” Out in the Gulf are 30 brown pelicans all fishing and resting. They scoop up fish in their huge pouches that hold up to three gallons of water. Forster’s terns drop like stones straight into the water and come up quickly, though I cannot see if they get anything.

There’s the reddish egret by Lake Victoria #1 just as it was yesterday. This is the least common heron in Florida, almost hunted to extinction in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century and now making a slow comeback. I call it “eternity’s bird” for that reason. It excites me like no other bird does. I’ve never seen one on this beach before but they are close by on Beer Can Island. When these birds are in water, it’s to fish. The heron is 30 inches, has a suede gray body and a washed out rust breast, neck and head. Once hunted for its plumes, gray and rust colored, they hang full and thick like a woman’s frilly wrap.

The reddish is out of the water and on the dry sand doing nothing. The shadow of a tern falls on the sand; the bird quietly looks up. The lake is as still as glass. A ruddy turnstone picks at some red/green weed. The heron is doing nothing but I cannot stop taking notes on it. Like I said, it excites me like no other bird. And it does seem to like these tidal pools.