When we were children, Gini and I spent many summer days at the beach. She grew up exploring the edges of the Gulf of Mexico while I dipped my toes in the chilly Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Miami. Both her father and mine were avid fishermen and our respective families consumed a LOT of fresh fish over the years. My family moved to Tampa when I was around 10 years old and discovering the relatively warm, calm waters of west coast beaches was a pleasant revelation.
We have been fortunate in our life together to have lived in other parts of the United States and Europe. To this day, we have found nothing to compare to the magnetic pull of salt water, bountiful sun, warm breezes, gentle tides and total pleasure of Florida’s west coast. It is magical. It is comfortable. It is restful. It is – Home.
About a month ago (with all that has transpired in the interim, it seems like a lifetime), we crossed the four mile long Sunshine Skyway Bridge and turned toward a favorite destination, Fort De Soto Park. The view from the top of the bridge at over 400 feet (122 meters) tall is spectacular. To the east one can see the skylines of Saint Petersburg and Tampa across the vast shallow waters of Tampa Bay. To the west is the lighthouse at Egmont Key and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. As your gaze moves a bit north, the huge American flag flapping above the headquarters at Fort De Soto captures your attention.
There are two long piers in the park and, as usual, each was busy with fishermen pulling in all manner of fish. Feathered fishermen were stationed nearby hoping to be tossed morsels the humans didn’t want to keep. Herons and egrets have also become adept at working open the tops of bait buckets and helping themselves, much to the displeasure of the human anglers. Large schools of sardines and other small fish swirl around the pier structures and attract larger fish. Naturally, where there is food there will be predators. Humans, birds, fish, dolphins – all taking advantage of nature’s buffet.
In addition to the hustle and bustle around the piers, miles of sandy beach offer a quieter venue for observing shorebirds working the tide line for small fish and crustaceans. Just offshore, squadrons of pelicans cruise just above the tops of the waves. Gulls and terns hover above the salty turquoise setting and plunge headlong into a school of small fish.
A short hike from a picnic area takes one through a small wooded area to a more remote section of beach. Along the way, Gray Catbirds and Palm Warblers were busily gorging on insects in preparation for their northern migration soon. Just off the beach, a Red-breasted Merganser pair dove for a meal. Out of eight Osprey nests, six had chicks visible. A Bald Eagle caught a fat trout and headed for its own nest not far away. An unexpected treat, a Great Horned Owl with a young chick had a nest with what has to be one of the best views in the park. A flock of bright green Nanday Parakeets crashed into the trees and put an exclamation point on the tropical feel of the day!
At the boat ramp there were plenty of gulls, terns, egrets and herons hanging about hoping returning fishermen would dump unused bait overboard as they pulled boats from the water. Brown Pelicans soared overhead hoping for the same thing. Looking a bit out of place, a Spotted Sandpiper paced along a dock, characteristically bobbing its rear end as it walked.
As we lingered over a dinner of fresh seafood at sunset, we agreed that despite all that is going on in the world, we remain two of the most blessed individuals on the planet.
Why, yes, I did take a few pictures of the day. How kind of you to ask.
A plethora of pelicans. Dozing Brown Pelicans and a few Double-crested Cormorants.
Forster’s Terns were in abundance as they hovered, spotted a succulent sardine and splashed into the briny. My unofficial observations estimate they were successful only about 10% of the time.
Almost as numerous as Forster’s, Sandwich Terns were taking full advantage of the schools of finny snacks.
Party crasher. A Bottlenose Dolphin slashed through the sardine school and headed toward shallow water near the beach to take a census of the mullet. (“One” – gulp, “two” – gulp …..)
Patience, thy name is Snowy Egret. This bird stood its ground on the rocks as waves splashed all around, finally found what she had been looking for and scooped up a couple of sardines. Worth the wait!
A path through the woods ended at a more remote section of beach where raucous Nanday Parakeets (Aratinga nenday, formerly Black-hooded Parakeets) screeched and argued over preferred perches. There are several established populations of these “pet-store” birds around the country having been let go or escaped.
Right on the beach, a Great Horned Owl occupied a nest with a terrific view. The spot is on a small point projecting into Egmont Channel where she can see the sun rising over Tampa Bay and in the evening watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. Her chick looked very healthy.
A walk east of the owl’s nest was a dead-end trail. A secluded area there was busy with feeding shorebirds. A Dunlin and Least Sandpiper worked the wrack line as I lay on the sand and watched. Fascinating.
The tall blooms of this Century Plant (Agave americana) will soon attract resident and migrating hummingbirds.
More fishing. A Tricolored Heron stretches from its mangrove perch to snag a minnow from a passing school.
At the boat ramp area, a Brown Pelican keeps an eye out for discarded bait or fish tossed overboard by returning fishermen.
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay. The constantly bobbing rear end helps identify the Spotted Sandpiper. In another month or so, it will begin acquiring the spots on its underparts which are its namesake.
This was a very special day for us. Not just because we are totally prejudiced toward our Florida beaches, which we are. The day was a celebration of 52 years of being husband and wife. We are so looking forward to the next 52!
We truly hope you are all well and safe and are able to find positive things upon which to focus. Better times are just around the bend …..
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!