A Meditative Exercise

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A female mottled duck wakes up. (Photos by Michael Givant)

Birding is much more than identifying avian species. It combines aesthetics and contemplation about nature. Most of my birding is done alone and in so doing, I experience not only birds, but I come face to face with myself.

Early Morning Light

As the first rays of sun come over rooftops, the beach is comfortably cool and the tide low. On hard, white sand flattened by the tide, two snowy plovers run at breakneck speed from one small pile of clumped seaweed to another. These endangered birds are relatively easy to see this morning because they have a dark forehead line and neck lines. In winter, they are as pale as the sand and are almost impossible to see, especially in bright sun. If they aren’t at one pile let your eye go to the next pile where they may be. The weed and a bird make a sweet photo.

The white sand seems to stretch for miles with sunlight bouncing off the bodies of willets, our largest sandpipers, as they hunt for shells and coquina amid small, white waves. There’s a blue-gray cloud bank stretching for miles over a pastel-green Gulf of Mexico. A small army of brown pelicans fly in a over the water. Two breeding brown pelicans come low over the water and close to shore looking startlingly beautiful. Their frosty yellow heads, white necks and scabbard-like bills seem to stand out in this low light. These moments of low light are magical when the beach is relatively empty except for early morning walkers and shellers. Later in full sunlight, beach chairs will dot the landscape.

Mottled Ducks

Seeing the landscape without really looking at it is a part of birding that develops with time. When something just doesn’t look right, you look at it closely and then with binoculars. There are three dark clumps on the sand further back by the beach grass. Binoculars reveal that they are mottled ducks. March and April is when these Gulf Coast birds nest and mid-March is when they show up on the beach.

Two of the mottled ducks are snoozing and the third is standing guard. These birds are strong fliers. Recently, I’ve seen them circle the beach and water then leave over rooftops. I know from past experience that they don’t want people too near them and will walk steadily and determinedly out of good viewing range. I don’t see them except this time of year and enjoy their plump rich “whiskey” colored bodies that have black striations. Their heads and necks are light-sand colored and the males have a yellow bill. Both genders have bright orange legs and feet. I don’t want to disturb them and make them fly. Both snoozers stand up, but one gets back down again bending its legs and resumes snoozing. Soon they get up and walk away. Later,

I’m agitated to find out that these are game birds in Florida and 13,000 are taken every year. Poor things, I’m going to approach them quite gingerly in the future.
A ruddy turnstone is pecking and pushing at a pile of dried seaweed to no avail. Even in relatively drab winter plumage, these birds are colorful, sporting light brown, rust-colored backs and red feet. Their slightly upturned bills allow them to turn over everything on the beach in search of a morsel, hence the name turnstones. Finding nothing under the seaweed, the bird flies off over the water issuing a plaintiff call as it goes.

A great egret with breeding plumes
A great egret with breeding plumes

Feeding Wild Birds

In the afternoon, my wife and I are having lunch at an outdoor area at the Publix supermarket when a great egret flies over a fence landing between the tables. It wants to be fed. Well meaning people do toss them bits of food, but shouldn’t. Feeding wild birds may seem like a kind or harmless act, but wild herons are not meant to eat snack table scraps. As they become used to handouts, their fish catching skills diminish as do their abilities to fend for themselves and probably their survival skills.

At the moment, I’m not thinking about that but admiring this creature. Stately, almost regal, it stands erect, strong and has the confidence of youth. It’s feathers are smooth white; its body almost taut. There’s a slight green mark at the base of its long, yellow bill as it looks around. This is a breeding great egret, as can be seen by the slightly duller breeding plumes hanging from its back. They start one third of the way up the egret’s back and begin in a straight row that looks like a comb could run through it.

The couple with whom we are sharing the table mutter “don’t feed the birds.” The egret has found his mark in a young man covered in tattoos. He’s curious about the bird and tosses it a scrap for which the bird dives. That bill was not meant to take food from concrete, but to patiently stalk fish in shallow water and strike in a millisecond. The bird dives for another morsel and I’m disgusted. This probably isn’t the first or last time people will feed it and this magnificent bird is on the road to becoming a beggar.

These large white herons sometimes land on parked mail trucks, then fly off with lithe gracefulness. We’re on the way to the post office now. At least they won’t be fed there. A few weeks later leaving the supermarket, there’s a great egret flying in and lands on the fence. I can’t but admire its statuesque-like appearance. Then a little bell rings in my mind’s ear. I know this guy and turn away unwilling to watch the bird wait for someone to feed it.

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Michael Givant, who writes our Bird’s Eye View column, resides in Woodbury and teaches a film course at Farmingdale State College in the Institute For Learning In Retirement and a foreign film class at The Longboat Key Education Center in Florida.

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