Among The birds – III
Stepping into the warm water of Tampa Bay, a school of mullet moved ahead of me as though it was one large organism. Occasionally one would jump and smack the water’s surface and I would once again wish for proficiency in the art of throwing a cast net. A much larger splash behind me turned out to be a Brown Pelican crashing onto a school of sardines.
The East Beach turnaround is at the southeastern boundary of Fort De Soto Park. Earlier, we were at North Beach, at the park’s northwestern extremity. The actual “East Beach” is a nice beach, although it is located on Tampa Bay and not the Gulf of Mexico (as North Beach is). As such, the sand is not the pure white sugary stuff produced by the Gulf’s pounding surf but there is a very nice grove of trees and picnic area. That grove of trees can fill with migrating warblers in the fall and especially in the spring.
As you drive beyond the East Beach parking lot, the road continues for about a half-mile and ends in a circular turn-around. There is an outstanding view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance and on either side of the road are tidal flats offering fantastic fishing. Wading these waters is a bit different than it was at the North Beach. Instead of a firm, sandy bottom, deep mud makes walking a challenge. Old tennis shoes with tightened laces work well.
Once again, I waded a few yards offshore which did not seem to alarm the feeding birds. Approaching them from the land side, they were quick to fly away, apparently nervous I might be a predator. The main attraction for most shorebirds here is the wrack line of accumulated seaweeds and grasses.
The number of birds here was nowhere near what we encountered on the sand bars earlier. This was not a place for birds to rest, rather it was a buffet where the patrons jostled and ran for a better position in line. Constantly active, the diversity of species may have been relatively small, but it was great fun trying to keep up with them.
Dripping, muddy and sandy, I begged Gini for “just one more stop”. Not really. She eagerly asked where we were headed next. However, we both agreed since it was nearing high noon that the ultimate goal of our trip should soon be realized. Our favorite seafood place is not far from here and is our not-so-secret actual destination any time we find ourselves within 50 miles (or more).
The last stop today was a walk on the fishing pier which juts 1000 feet (305 meters) into the Gulf of Mexico. The pilings supporting the pier, as well as the shade provided by the pier, attracts all sorts of small fish and crustaceans. These, in turn, attract all sorts of bigger fish and large amounts of birds, each hoping for an easy meal. No wading involved here! The stroll in the sunshine helped dry out my shorts and shoes a bit.
Our morning visit to one of our favorite parks was extremely satisfying. We enjoyed the sun, sand, water, birds and each other’s company. Plans to return are already in progress.
Since we ended our visit to the North Beach (in part II) by saying farewell to a Reddish Egret, it seemed only fitting to be welcomed to the East Beach area by – another Reddish Egret!
Even in non-breeding plumage, a Ruddy Turnstone has a wonderfully complex plumage which allows it to blend in on a beach quite well.
A Great Egret was almost too “great” for my lens to get it all in the frame.
Replete in her golden slippers, a Snowy Egret scans the shallow water for lunch.
Our companion, the Reddish Egret, is all business as a small crab gets his attention. He grabbed the crab and downed it before I could even think about snapping a photo.
From the tall to the small. Not as big as an egret, a Least Sandpiper is just as effective at hunting. At less than six inches (15 cm) long, this is the world’s smallest shorebird.
We counted 18 Short-billed Dowitchers in this spot. Their long bills come in quite handy for probing deep into the mud. “Short-billed” certainly does not seem accurate, but it is to distinguish them from their close relative, the Long-billed Dowitcher. In truth, bill length of both species can be similar, with females often sporting longer bills than males.
In non-breeding plumage, a Semipalmated Plover is much paler than it was during the summer. The name “semipalmated” refers to webbing between the bird’s toes which is difficult to see in the field.
Nearly the same size, a Sanderling and Semipalmated Plover race along the wrack line in the never-ending quest for food. The Sanderling’s gray and white non-breeding plumage is quite different from the mottled brown/rusty feathers of breeding season.
The namesake black belly has faded until the spring, but size, plumage and bill shape help identify the Black-bellied Plover.
A much stouter bill and pale (instead of yellow) legs help distinguish the Wilson’s Plover from his cousins.
Gini-with-the-spectacular-eyes spotted an Eastern Wood-Pewee in a nearby tree. We normally see a small number of these flycatchers during migration but they seldom hang around very long.
While chasing the Wood-Pewee, a movement higher in the same tree turned out to be a Yellow-throated Warbler.
As I stepped onto the fishing pier, a pair of Ruddy Turnstones were engrossed in a conversation about a nearby clam bar.
Looking down onto a Double-crested Cormorant provided a unique perspective of this diving expert. A sleek design, powerful legs with webbed feet, a long hooked bill and a fan-shaped tail to act as a rudder under water combine to make this a very efficient fisherman. (The bubbles are caused by schools of fish.)
Common Terns in non-breeding plumage show a dark cap behind the eye and onto the back of the head. Wingtips are a bit darker than the similar Forster’s Tern.
A wide wingspan for gliding and long lower mandible specially designed for dipping just below the water’s surface make the Black Skimmer a very distinct-looking bird!
Two dozen Brown Pelicans floated around the pier scooping up fish when they felt like it. These huge birds seem ungainly when perched but in the air they transform into something altogether – elegant.
Beyond the pier, clouds begin to form in the distant Gulf of Mexico.
Our morning adventure was packed with excitement! We have been here before. We shall be here again. Anticipation is, indeed, an emotion. We can’t wait.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Lunch was exceptional. Remember the mullet I encountered above? We had two of their friends fried to perfection. The portions required two separate plates for each of us. Happy campers we were!