Several weeks ago the Spring migration was winding down and we wanted to see if we could locate shorebirds on the return flight from South America to their northern breeding grounds. It’s not that I’m anti-social (do NOT ask Gini her opinion), but I gravitate toward areas which might be less visited by humans. Even if the potential for species diversity is not as great, if it’s just the two of us it seems, well, more intimate and “special”. I’m selfish that way.
Pine Island came to mind. There are at least four different communities in Florida bearing the name “Pine Island”. This one is in Hernando County at the end of a really nice country road which snakes through the vast flat salt marsh on the Gulf Coast. On past trips, the last stretch of road has produced Clapper Rails, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Bald Eagles, rainbows and is a wonderful prelude to the actual beach area. The beach is small but across the channel is a mudflat which attracts all sorts of birds. The view from the beach is the open Gulf of Mexico and with a scope at this time of year could yield mergansers and loons.
I checked the weather forecast and recent birding reports. Sandwiches were packed, a breakfast of granola and fresh orange slices got us off to a great start and we set out into the pre-dawn darkness. One little thing I forgot to check, tidal charts. That “wonderful prelude” road was filled with water and no speck of mud was in sight. No worries. To the beach! That’s odd. We’ve never seen anyone at the entrance station before. It’s usually put your money in the slot and get a ticket. “Good Morning, folks! How many dogs do you have?” Uhhh, none. “Oh, that’s okay. Enjoy your day.” Dogs?? Yes, today was “Bark Island” day, a twice-monthly affair when dog owners could bring their pets to the beach, unleash them and sit back and watch the fun! I made a valiant effort to set up the scope and scan the water for signs of floating feathered fowl. Nothing. A Laughing Gull landed nearby hoping for a chunk of bread. Three dozen yapping balls of fur convinced him to take flight to the Yucatan. Sigh. Time for Plan B.
Just around the corner was Bayport Park, a nice county facility with new modern boat ramps, fishing pier and picnic area. A small wooded area sometimes held good numbers of migrating warblers. Not this day. I saw a pair of Horned Grebes about a thousand miles out in the bay who sensed I was looking at them and submerged never to be seen again. Sigh. Thank goodness for Plan C!
Down the road was a lovely hardwood swamp with an old logging road through it and several hiking trails to explore. The Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area is home to black bears, bobcats, turkeys (!), owls and possibly some of those resting warblers. Alas, it was not to be. Once more, I had failed to check a little detail. Today was the first day of the Spring Turkey hunting season. Boom! Blam! We heard the fun long before we came face to face with orange vest-clad hunters fanning out from the trailhead in all directions. Okay, full disclosure. I didn’t really have a Plan D. Quick thinking, however, salvaged our day.
Not all that far north was the town of Crystal River and a road which ran parallel to the actual Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the trail is Fort Island Gulf Beach. Another very small beach directly on the Gulf. Listen. Hear that? No barking! No booming or blamming! A few hardy souls (obviously not from Florida) were wading into the chilly water pretending it was as wonderful as a warm bath. Right.
On the beach, in addition to shivering tourists, we found several dozen napping Black Skimmers, a few hundred Laughing Gulls, a young Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Terns, a Least Tern and a not very common Bonaparte’s Gull.
We enjoyed our sandwiches under a bright blue sky with a salty breeze making us comfortable in Florida’s ample sunshine. An Eastern Bluebird yanked a fat grub from the ground, took it to a utility wire above us and enjoyed his lunch, too.
Photographs with size comparisons coming up. There will be a test so study hard!
The Royal Tern is the second largest tern in North America with only the Caspian being larger. The Royal has an orange-yellow bill while the Caspian’s is red. Except for a short period during breeding, the Royal’s forehead is white and the Caspian’s is either black or “smudgy”. (During our visit, we noted several Royal Terns with bands/rings.)
This is only the second Bonaparte’s Gull I’ve seen. It’s one of the smallest gulls in the country and has a distinctive graceful flight. It often swims on the water’s surface like a duck.
Least Terns are the smallest terns in North America and breed along Florida’s coast. They usually nest near beaches but will also use the flat roofs of buildings. This can present problems because some buildings use tar to hold gravel in place. The tar can become very hot and burn the birds’ feet or become stuck in their feathers.
One of our largest gulls is the Herring Gull. It takes four years for a juvenile Herring Gull to reach adult plumage. In their first year they are mostly mottled brown and gradually change to more and more gray and white. As adults they will sport light gray backs, black wingtips, white heads and underparts. This appears to be a first-year bird.
The lineup. From left to right: Royal Terns, Herring Gull, Least Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull (in front), Laughing Gull and Ring-billed Gull. I tried to get them all to face the camera but I think they spotted someone down the beach with a sandwich.
As the sun was almost directly overhead, many of the birds thought it was a fine time for a nap. A Laughing Gull and Black Skimmer snooze on the sand.
One bird who was not asleep was this Eastern Bluebird. He saw us break out our sandwiches and jumped into the grass, pulled up a juicy grub, beat it on the ground to tenderize it and took it above our heads and gulped it down. Yum!
I recently blathered on about planning (The Importance of a Plan). This is where I admonish: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even back-up plans can go awry. In my case, I’m very blessed to have a partner who genuinely enjoys just exploring our world, with or without a plan. And, for me, THAT’S all I ever need!
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!