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A Bird’s Eye View: April 5, 2013

Birds Fly, Images Remain

One recent March night in Florida, I lay awake at 3 a.m. watching images of birds and other wildlife dance in the darkness. They were of rare or uncommon recent sightings. Unable to forget them, I was writing an outline in my head of this article. Knowing I’d never remember it in the morning I got up to write while standing at the kitchen island in dim light. Part of the following is what I scrawled that night.

The Sea’s Toll

The day after a heavy rain, the beach has whitecaps that are out of a Winslow Homer painting. This isn’t the usual calm Gulf of Mexico. A dead loon is on the sand in calm finality. Did it exhaust itself struggling against that sea? Nearby is a lightning whelk egg case, something that rarely washes up here. Bone- colored, rather long and thick, it resembles a heavy snake. This once had contained the eggs, which spawned large numbers of lightning whelks common on Florida’s Gulf Coast. I carry it on a stick to show my wife the sea’s mystery, which is sometimes called a “mermaids necklace.” A woman apparently fascinated by it gets her camera and takes several pictures.

A cormorant is drying itself on the sand. These black diving birds prefer docks and posts for this chore. Another joins it. Almost 40 minutes later, to my surprise, the bird is still there when I return with my camera. People have walked close to it but the bird, nicknamed the “shag,” hasn’t flown. It walks, flaps its wings, is alert, raises its head and yawns. It appears the bird will stay here all afternoon. I stop taking pictures because it may be exhausted from battling the surf. I’m not going to knowingly take advantage of an injured or weakened bird.

The next morning in gray light, the oval three-foot green form of a sea turtle is lying in the sand. Something badly scraped looks like it once may have been this reptile’s head. Standing with it are several people including two women from the Mote Marine Laboratory. These creatures have been on the planet for at least 65 million years and can live up to eighty years. So dead and so benign. People are appropriately speaking in soft tones.

Sudden Delight

My wife and I are passing a stream on the side of a golf course. Routinely great egrets, white ibises, anhinga, and the endangered wood stork can sometimes be seen here. Of late we have seen a few roseate spoonbills in the water. These dark pink and white birds with a Dixie-Cup shaped gray bill look like they are from Mars and are on the species of special concern list. Now one is rising just above the water in a flash of pink and yellow, wings beating and water falling off its body. Just like that, it’s gone. So near, so far, so small and not easily forgotten. It leaves me wanting more.

Birding And Bridge

Two weeks later, I’m walking in a 32-acre wetlands as I do every Monday afternoon while my wife takes a bridge class. In a pond is an immature little blue heron, which in this phase is actually white. A female belted kingfisher flies at my approach, which is usual for these birds. There is a great egret in the pond as well. What makes me stare, however, is a lone roseate spoonbill. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen one this close. There’s a lipstick-like smear of dark red that runs along the bird’s white side at shoulder level that in the bright sun is riveting. Two people sit down on a nearby bench causing the egret to fly and the little blue to vanish. The spoonbill starts to briskly walk my way.

I flatten against a leaning palm tree trunk, making myself as inconspicuous as possible. Its red legs become white almost where thigh meets body. The gray bill, knobby at the base, smoothes out into that unmistakable shape. It is dipped in the water, coming up with a stick. As the bird passes me it’s sweeping its bill in the water to pick up prey. It gets nothing.  It partially turns, still searching with the bill now open. The great egret gets a fish but soon walks out of the water onto the grass. The spoonbill does the same, following as if the egret is its mentor. The spoonbill flies to a tall mangrove. The egret follows landing next to it but the spoonbill lifts off flapping its wings fast.

I follow the movements of the female kingfisher that is resting in the interior of a tree. As long as I’m not moving, the bird tolerates me. It goes to a lower branch patiently eyeing the water and then flies down and back to the branch, dripping some water. It does this once more to no avail. Meanwhile a male mallard in the water stands up near the mangrove then settles in the water, but soon rears up flapping its wings. The kingfisher leaves and I start to walk the park’s trails.

Going around a curve in the park’s backwaters, which has been bereft of birds this winter, atop a railing on a footbridge is a great blue heron. Its long black toes are wrapped tightly around the white wood. This 46-inch common bird appears to be in a trance. I stop in my tracks and swallow hard. Less than 20 feet separate us. There’s no way it isn’t aware of my presence. Attempting to walk past it will cause the bird to fly. I turn around and go back the long way. It’s worth it not to scare off that magnificent creature. This afternoon has brought rare avian imagery and I won’t disturb it.