Sunday, August 2, 2009

Birding Away in Margaritaville


Despite my bad luck with scheduling baseball games today, and my horror at finding the first Canadian tourists of the year already, I was able to end the day on a high note birding on a couple of Sarasota's keys. On returning from the east coast I went immediately to Lido Key and the South Park on the island. There I walked the beach looking for newly arrived migrant birds and perhaps some summer residents I had not found earlier. Between here and the Quick Point Nature Preserve later in the evening I picked up six new species for my Sarasota County bird list.

On walking to the beach from the parking lot I came across a large group of Laughing Gulls miling around on the beach just being Laughing Gulls. Among them was one bird that was obviously sick - it was flopping around in the water, its feathers soaked, and the bird in not very good shape. I picked it up, felt its sternum and after looking at it a bit concluded that it was starving to death. When birds get to that point there is very little you can do for them but I didn't want to do what I should have done for it - instead I put the bird back on the beach and decided to let mom nature take her course. Plus killing it would have been a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 USC 703-712) and I wasn't eager to do that.

Not far from the hapless Laughing Gull I found a pair of Willets hanging out waiting for the tide to change. For whatever reason I had not yet found Willet in Sarasota County, I think because I haven't tried very hard. You can learn more about Willet's at this website.

Not far from the pair of Willet's I found a group of seven Ruddy Turnstones recently arrived from the high Arctic and no doubt enjoying the 91 degree temperature and similar humidity of south Florida. They were my second Sarasota County bird of the afternoon.

Sarasota County government cooperating with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission had roped off a small area of the beach to protect nesting pairs of Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Snowy Plovers from any sort of harassment by uninformed beach users. I walked over to the closed area and enroute found a pair of Snowy Plover that almost perfectly blended in with the sandy beach. Talk about protective coloration!

Earlier this summer I had found numerous Snowy Plovers in Manatee County just a few miles north. These, however were the first I found in Sarasota County. County bird number 3.

Despite this being August 2 there were still adult Least Terns flying about carrying fish to their dependent offspring. Hopefully they had a successful nesting season with there being no tropical storms or other nasty weather to have screwed them up this year. A month from today about 95 percent of the Least Terns will have departed Florida for Trinidad and the coast of South America where they will hang out until they return next year in April. Some times I wish I was a Least Tern. If you want to read more about the ecology of this species, make sure you check out this excellent paper published about the Interior race long ago and in a galaxy far away. The paper might be old but it was one of the principal pieces of evidence used to justify the listing of the Interior Least Tern as an endangered species, and the Piping Plover as a threatened species many years ago.

Right there with the Least Terns were probably 25 to 30 Black Skimmer floating around in the air and skimming the water's surface and just generally being one of the most beautiful species of bird you could ever see on the west coast of Florida.

On returning along the beach to my car I found a local family who had discovered the Laughing Gull I left to die earlier. They had picked up the bird and were going to take it to a veterinarian for medical attention. I explained that the bird was just hours from death and there was likely nothing even a veterinarian could do for it. They were persistent and determined and I said nothing else to them. At least they will sleep well tonight knowing that they tried.

Leaving beautiful Lido Key beach with three new species for my Sarasota County list I passed thorugh (around?) St. Armand's Circle and then went north to the southern tip of Longboat Key where Sarasota County government has established the Quick Point Nature Preserve. The mangrove forest associated with this preserve is one of the best developed that I have seen along the Sarasota Bay. It was tough to leave it at the end of the day.

Offshore from the mangroves there were hundreds of Herons and Egrets foraging and among them I found my first Reddish Egret for Sarasota County.

Not far from the Reddish Egret, lounging on an exposed sandbar was a pair of American Oystercatcher - another new species for my Sarasota County list. This has been another favorite bird of mine ever since I saw my first one - appropriately on an oyster bed - along the causeway to Chincoteague Island, Virginia on September 2, 1978.

There is an extensive boardwalk that winds its way through the preserve allowing interested visitors a great opportunity to learn about the mangrove forest if they take the time to see the forest for its trees. I was enjoying the hike keeping an ear and eye piqued for anything feathered when I saw a medium sized white-bellied bird flop across the trail in front of me. Given the habitat I was hoping it was a Mangrove Cuckoo but on closer inspection found it to be the more likely Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

The Florida Breeding Bird Atlas indicates that this species is widespread during the nesting season throughout Florida. However this is only the first one I have seen or heard in the two breeding season's that I have lived here. I enjoyed watching the bird from as close as 10 feet as it nerded around in the vegetation looking for a hapless insect to scarf up for dinner. As I watched it I recalled the last time I saw one this closely and this clear - from just feet away on the Sabana de Bogota just outside Bogota, Colombia, in October 2003.

I stayed another 30 minutes in the mangroves watching Yellow-crowned Night-Herons stalking crabs and Red-bellied Woodpeckers drilling the bark of trees and watching Barn Swallows swirl around overhead as they make their way south to their winter homes. It was difficult leaving this remarkable little patch of what once was in coastal Florida.

Returning toward home I remembered hearing about a new addition to the aquarium that serves as the bar at the Lazy Lobster restaurant off Lockwood Ridge Road. Not too long ago the management of the Lobster added a Snowflake Moray Eel to their collection and I wanted to see this fish. He has only been there a few days but has already staked out a pelycopod shell as "his." I pulled up a chair and sat there for an hour watching the eel just be an eel. What a beautiful fish!

Jimmy Buffett once said that you should "never eat seafood if you can't see the ocean" and for the most part I abide by his teachings. However when it comes to the Lazy Lobster - located in a strip mall 5 miles east of the nearest salt water - I make an exception. I have yet to have a meal here that wasn't excellent and tonight's teriyaki salmon with a seaweed salad only added to the list of excellent meals that the chef at the Lobster consistently produces. I would buy stock in this place if they sold it.

So, despite the lousy luck with no baseball game in Cocoa Beach, and despite the arrival of the first tourists 3 months earlier than they should be here, the day ended weill with lots of great birds in beautiful habitats. It was topped off with another incomparable meal at the Lazy Lobster - plus I got to work further on my tan. And just think other people have to go to work tomorrow.

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