A-Birding in a Beach Chair

Willet in winter plumage. (From Wikipedia)

For several weeks now this typist has been watching the birds of the Gulf Coast from a beach chair in the Florida Panhandle. It’s a wiser alternative than to go poking about in a nasty old swamp, where a passing ivory-billed woodpecker might upset my equanimity. (Should I report the sighting, and then be publicly humiliated for not being able to identify a pileated woodpecker; or keep mum, and see some dude down the road gain birding immortality?) Better to loll here and count the brown pelicans.

At this time of year the beach is a haven for birds. Most responsible citizens are gainfully occupied now, and have removed their bird-chasing offspring and pooches from the sands along with themselves. Two or three laughing gulls always take up their stations near my canvas chair in the vain hope of a handout. But my most active avian neighbors are sanderlings, which Elizabeth Bishop, in her elegant poem “Sandpiper,” likened to poets-dashing about in the foam and spray at the edge of the surf, eternally “looking for something, something, something.”

They are feisty little shorebirds, each quite proprietary toward “its” short stretch of beach. Let another sanderling come bopping along, obsessively probing the wet sand with its beak and getting too close for comfort, and the proprietor rushes at the interloper to hasten it on its way. But often I spot a Mutt-and-Jeff twosome: a tiny sanderling tagging along in the wake of one of our largest sandpipers, a willet-probing where it probes, matching the pace of the bird towering above it by revving up its dark, twig-like legs to dizzying speeds.

A willet seems the blandest of the beach’s inhabitants. Mostly a dull gray, it is stolid and almost awkward compared to its minute, intense companion. But let a threat, real or imagined, jolt the willet into flight and it’s instantly transformed into a dazzling apparition. The wings flare open to reveal long, jagged white stripes, each like a bolt of lightning flashing across a bleak sky. The revelation always makes my day.

There are other pleasures to spice my sedentary pastime. An offshore storm may bring a flock of gannets into view, far out over the waves. A school of small silvery fish in the shallow surf attracts terns-royal, Sandwich, or Forster’s-diving persistently for an easy snack. When the laughing gulls notice the excitement, they join the free-for-all, harassing the terns in sometimes successful attempts to force them to disgorge their catch.

Today, another treat. Among the sanderlings appears a veritable shrimp of a bird: short, sand-sticker bill, dark legs. I fumble for my bird guide. What says Kenn Kaufman? A snowy plover! So let that impetuous dude have his ivory-bill, while I concentrate on the basics. Z-z-z-z-z.


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