Standing in the wet sand gazing westward over the Gulf of Mexico as the light of the rising sun streamed over my shoulders, I could not discern any horizon at all. I was at the edge of the universe. Within my gaze was a vast nothingness. Within my imagination was everything. Waves washed over my feet in a rhythm as old as time. To the inexorable beat of this geologic drum the soprano screeches of gulls, terns and myriad shorebirds added a chaotic cacophony which reached into my reverie and jerked me back to the reality of a new day.
Gini and I have often talked about this land of our birth, the “Sunshine State”, being “in our blood”. We feel fortunate to have lived in several states within America as well as in Europe. After a time in each of those marvelous spots we found ourselves longing to return to the warmth, humidity, sand, salty air, evening breezes saturated with the sticky sweet scent of orange blossoms, Cuban sandwiches, deviled crabs, mullet jumping in the bay and, perhaps most of all, the irresistible pull of the music of the beach.
Today I was with a good friend and outstanding birder and we were visiting Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast in Manatee County. Just north of Sarasota and south of Tampa-St. Petersburg, the island caters to vacationers and offers many rentals near some really beautiful white sand beaches. We specifically paid an early morning visit to the southern end of the island at Holmes Beach. If we hoped to see any shorebirds it would have to be early before the folks with jogging shoes, beach chairs, metal detectors, fishing poles, BBQ grills and tanker trucks filled with tanning lotion began their daily duties.
We found a group of roosting terns, gulls, skimmers and smaller shorebirds and were challenged to identify and count all the individuals amongst the feathers, flapping and yapping. About the time we had a count on one species, the whole group shifted on the beach and we had to start over. As the sun rose over the condominiums, we headed for the parking lot and were satisfied to have found over 100 Black Skimmer, 90 Laughing Gull, 50 Sanderling, 45 Royal Tern, Ringed-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Red Knot and even three Barn Swallows swooping low over the surf. Although our final species tally was only 19, it was fun trying to get accurate counts on what we did find. (Side note: When walking in deep beach sand, one must multiply the distance traveled by five for the sake of accuracy. For example, I only walked one-half actual miles but with the “sand factor” I logged the mileage as “2.5 miles”. We birders DO like to be accurate. No, really.)
To paraphrase an old television commercial: “A birding blog without photographs is like a day without sunshine.” Herewith, your daily dose of Sol’s rays.
The first sunlight of the day illuminated a Sandwich Tern as she scoured the shallow water for a school of breakfast fish.
Larger than the Sandwich Tern, this Royal Tern with its bright orange bill displays impressive wingspread while making an abrupt turn to get a better look at something in the water.
Great Blue Herons seem equally at home on the beach, lake, river or swamp. A true “generalist” when it comes to locating food.
Great Blue Heron
Willets always seem to be late for an appointment. Probably with a hermit crab.
Red Knots are not that common in our area so it’s always good to see one scooting along the surf line.
True to its name, a Ruddy Turnstone picks up a stone (okay, maybe it’s a shell) to see if anything good to eat is underneath.
The Knot and the Turnstone seemed to like each other’s company. (More likely, one was hoping the other would locate a seafood bonanza.)
Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone
Bright orange fungus on a piece of driftwood offered a bit of color on the stark white beach.
American Oystercatchers are fairly large creatures and have pretty impressive bills for capturing all manner of prey. This one materialized along the beach and found a likely fishing spot where he chased small crabs.
Appearing quite stately among the scurrying Sanderlings, a Ring-billed Gull staked out his own spot in the morning sun among shells broken by the pounding waves.
The bill of the adult Black Skimmer looks quite substantial from the side but when viewed head-on has the appearance of a razor. A young Skimmer will soon obtain the handsome black plumage of his parents.
Black Skimmer (immature)
Typical of most kids, a juvenile begs his mom for food. She says, “I just fed you!”. Then yells at him to go clean his room. Poor kid finds a spot in the sand, flops down and heaves a big sigh as he’s pretty sure no one cares at all about him, especially those pesky Sanderlings in the background, preening all the time. (It’s quite common for Black Skimmers, adults as well as juveniles, to rest their large bills on the ground.)
No matter where you live, we hope you all have your own version of “beach music” which, no matter how hard you try, simply cannot be resisted.
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Anna Maria Island
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)