Written by Michael Givant Friday, 02 March 2012 00:00
Longboat Key, Florida has a two-mile strip of beach that encompasses Whitney Beach and the key’s northernmost tip, called Beer Can Island. I walk it almost every morning in winter and take notes about what I see and feel. Based on those notes this is what that beach looked and felt like for five days this January.
On Beer Can’s tip, in the still-as-glass lagoon, a great egret steadily walks leaving a long thin trail. Another egret with a gray back, light rust neck and a pink and black bill suddenly appears. It’s the reddish egret, which was hunted almost to extinction for its plumes in the early 20th century. The reddish, about 100 yards from me, walks in water where the green reflection of mangroves makes it difficult to spot. There’s a sudden flurry of wings. The heron has plucked a small fish from the water, which struggles momentarily in its bill before quickly disappearing into it. The reddish walks near the far shore in a herky-jerky motion. It looks left, looks back, plows straight ahead, changes direction then stands still as a statue with a body that looks like gray stone but with a washed out rust neck and head. Is this life imitating art?
There’s a large immature gull whose pink left foot is missing. I saw it here a number of times last year. Its ability to walk and stand on one leg was such that I marveled as I do now. I thought it was an immature herring gull last year and a year later I know it is, as the gull’s back is starting to turn gray, as it should when it becomes an adult. I’m amazed that it’s here again this year amidst the gulls, terns, skimmers and sandpipers that populate the beach. Is this the bird’s “home?” The gull, maimed as a juvenile, has survived and isn’t a nomad. I like the idea that it may have a home and these other birds are “family.”
A large immature gull, possibly a herring gull, is pecking at a freshly dead baby sand shark. It gives way to an immature ring-bill that pecks at the head. Looking closer, the fish’s tail fin has an elegant sweep to it. Later my wife and I look at the sand shark more closely and it appears to have the remains of a hammer-like head. Squeamishly, I probe the stiff body with the remains of a shell. I can’t help but admire the sweep of the shark’s elegant blue gray lines as it graces the sand before the tide claims it.
The temperature is in the high 60s and the wind is 15-20 mph making it feel colder. Rain is coming later and I expect the beach to be deserted, but that isn’t the case. There are three large groupings of gulls, terns and shore birds. The first set has thirty Forster’s terns, smallish birds that dive from the air for fish. They are recognizable by their reddish legs and the black arrowhead shaped patch across the eye. I’ve never seen so many here before. Another group of birds has 20 willets, large sandpipers that usually hunt in smaller groups of about five. There are also 15 oystercatchers, black and white birds whose thick red bills are used to open clamshells. Again I’ve never seen so many in one place. Are the birds all gathering because of the coming storm?
Walking back I note that two of the large groups have joined together. There seems to be an acre of royal terns whose long bills are a yelllow/orange. Mixed in are 15 sandwich terns, whose black bills have a yellow tip. The wind is driving waves onto the beach and there is a large horseshoe shaped area of foam that looks like snow and jiggles like jello. The birds are massing further back toward the dunes. I turn around to see a low area of sky filled with the black bodies of some 60 skimmers. They whirl to the front of the group and then fly up again in a black jet stream and land anywhere they can near the group’s rear. The cacophony of white, black, gray red and orange is a silent symphony of color on this gray day.
On Beer Can Island the head of an eyeless fish rolls on the sand as an immature lesser black-backed gull nibbles tiny bits of flesh from it. A dozen willets are feeding on a slightly elevated wet sand bar. Someone is trying to photograph these drab brown birds but apparently they aren’t willing subjects. They quickly fly, showing their surprisingly bold flashing white wing pattern. Are they actually the same birds?
An osprey is winging it over the Gulf of Mexico toward a drawbridge, carrying a fish head first in its claws. The raptor looks as if it will pass over the bridge but instead turns and starts coming back. As the bird comes closer the outline of the fish becomes clear. It is wide back to belly with an outspread tail. Will the osprey come here to one of the tall bare ash colored trees to eat its prize? If so I’ll be here for an hour watching. The osprey however heads over a lagoon. My plans have changed. What’s next? This spot is. It’s my favorite place on the beach. I sit on one of the fallen trees staring at the swirls in its wood and feel the tranquility of the moment. This doesn’t happen often enough.