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A Bird’s Eye View: March 19, 2010

Small Moments Along Sarasota Bay

Longboat Key, which is just above Sarasota, is connected to Anna Maria Island by a drawbridge. Last winter I’d bird in the early morning and in midmorning I’d walk over the Longboat Pass Bridge to Anna Maria. There I’d continue along a sand road to the end and then back to LBK, a round trip of three miles. This walk was more about exercise than birding. However along the way I often found unexpected small moments that sometimes made the walk a spiritual exercise as well.

In the shallow water below the east side of the bridge are some snowy egrets. Two are standing on submerged, weed-covered pieces of sunken wood. A third is standing on the rocks. All look snowy white, compact and supple with their long, black bills protruding and their black legs and yellow feet looking squiggly in the crystal clear water. With necks hunched down, they’re in a good position to see fish but aren’t hunting. There’s no better view of a heron or egret’s lithe form on LBK than up here. Oddly the moment is achingly beautiful and I shortly move on.

As the bridge rises, the main attractions for walking it unfold: the vista and the cold breeze. I’m visually engulfed by a panorama of Sarasota Bay on one side with the white sands of Beer Can Island and the Gulf of Mexico stretching to the horizon, on the other. Florida water never looks as blue or as green or as smooth as it does up here. On the warmest day the breeze is refreshingly cool, a respite from the heat and humidity below. On cooler days it’s like standing in front an open meat freezer with a fan blowing. I enjoy the view and the breeze so much that despite being afraid of heights I walk the walk anyway.

One morning, the temperature is 55 degrees and the wind is gusting at 25 mph. I’m wearing a watch cap and wishing I were wearing two hooded sweatshirts, not one. Below, some bottle-nosed dolphins seem to be staging a series of races. They are coming, going, crisscrossing and one even swims directly toward me. Directly below, their smooth, gray bodies rise partially out of the water. When they are under, I can see their whole form swimming just beneath the surface. It’s a rare view and a moment savored.

On a milder morning, the shaggy feathered form of a black cormorant is just under the water’s wind-whipped surface. This is one of several dives the bird has made with a wide silver fish in its bill. The cormorant seems to be trying to wear out the struggling fish. Now on the surface the bird nicknamed the “shag” is trying to position the fish in its javelin-like orange bill, with the head facing its throat. The head of the fish is now in position and the body is slowly, slowly, slowly going back toward the throat. The cormorant turns at the last moment but I see its neck bulge as the catch is swallowed whole. So much for table manners.

On Anna Maria Island, adjacent to a sand path, in a narrow waterway are two great egrets. One is feeding, the other relaxing; each has rich breeding plumes. They are partially hidden by grasses and mangroves. Because both are facing in my direction, I’m trying to watch without being obtrusive and scaring them off. Great egrets may be the most common bird on LBK. I see them literally every day and one is a regular visitor at my door. So why am I stealthily trying to look at them? That they are in their natural habitat with plumes makes them irresistible. The resting egret looks in my direction and I quietly move for a look at the one which is feeding. Its breast is so fluffy white that it looks like snow in the midday sun. The egret lifts its head in my direction and I walk. I’ve gotten my look; they don’t need to be concerned about a bothersome human.

At the path’s end, in Sarasota Bay are two white pelicans. Huge birds, whose long orange scabbard-like bills have large breeding bumps and their pouches when spread, are enormous. The pelicans are too far away to see these outstanding features well and are slowly paddling away. Their high-rumped, white bodies look like old-fashioned Mississippi River steamboats. However, their orange legs look as if they’re raised and resting. That cannot be because the birds’ large webbed feet, which function as paddles, are propelling them out of sight. Funny feet, which can’t be seen, are what I’m focused upon.

Walking back as I get close to the bridge’s center, a great blue heron clears the bridge’s railing. With its neck bent and long, black legs trailing, the heron looks like an aerodynamic arrow shot from a 21st century archer’s bow. Watching the big blue cruise over the empty expanse of sky and green water, for a split second I imagine what sailing through that uninterrupted space must feel like. Regaining my bridge-bound view, the heron looks more like a bird and less like a bent arrow as it approaches Jewfish Island, gradually descending then disappearing into the exposed sand of low tide that rims the island. Another show, another moment.

On the LBK side of the bridge there’s a small curved white feather looking as if it were a papyrus boat floating in the water. From its tiny quills hang even tinier trailing feathers; a jewel floating on the tide. Who knows where it will go? I stand there admiring its delicate beauty. Odd, the smaller the object, the more memorable the moment.