Friday, February 12, 2010

Life's a Beach

Ah, the beach. For those of you who have never wintered in the north, I cannot begin to tell you what a treat it is to be able to leave it, if only for a few days, and enter a world of sun. Our winters here are not bad, not bitterly cold and not usually very snowy, but the sun rarely shines. Even a beach on a sunny, 60 degree day with 20 mph winds from the northwest is better than the relentless low gray clouds that define a Michigan winter.

The weather during my trip was not typical Florida weather, even for early February. The normal high is around 68, but three of the five days I was there never left the 50's. I didn't care, the sun was shining, and the cool weather meant the beaches were deserted.

I did some research before leaving home and had decided to head down the east coast to the Archie Carr NWR. My grandma, who I was visiting, lives on the south end of Merritt Island, so the refuge was about an hour away. It stretches for 20 miles down the Atlantic coast, interspersed with private property. How wonderful it was to see dunes covered with vegetation, not condos.

As soon as I reached the beach I started taking pictures. I guess I am an ammature bird watcher. This birdwatching thing is a fairly recent development. Although I've been feeding birds since I was in high school, and studied my family's copy of A Golden Field Guide of Birds of North America (which I still have, loose pages and all), I never really had the inclination to spend vacations intentionally seeking birds. That seemed to change when I moved out of the city to a place where I see more than mourning doves and house sparrows. I've also become more interested in them as I've done more artwork of birds.

One thing I've found particularly useful is having a decent telephoto lens so I can take pictures and then identify them later. I am terrible at making ID's on the spot--I need to learn which features and markings to look for, then be willing to carry a bird book around with me. These little fellows, however, are well known on any beach--Sanderlings.

To watch them scurry back and forth across the sand with each advancing wave is the delight of many beach-goers. Their soft peepings can only be heard on a beach devoid of screaming children and blaring radios. They probe in the sand and on the surface for invertebrates that wash ashore.

When they take to the air they show off their striking wing patterns,

then get right back to feeding.

With the constant whoosh of rolling waves it's easy to be lulled by the sea. I was so enthralled by the birds that I nearly forgot to look down, a fun thing to do on the beach.

It's also easy to forget to watch up and down the shore. Birds don't move perpendicular to shore, but parallel to it. I'd be watching a flock of birds up the shore only to have terns or Brown Pelicans sneak up behind me.

I think pelicans are amazing. According to Cornell, the brown is the only pelican species that is found on the ocean and the only one to dive into the water to catch food. I love the way they sail above the water's surface, sometimes dragging wingtips, up and down with the crest of a wave.

They are enormous birds and I was surprised to learn that the brown is the smallest of the world's pelicans. The typical wingspan for an adult is 90 inches, or 7.5 feet! They need big wings to hold up those heavy bodies.

Every once in a while I manage to take a really nice shot. I didn't realize until I saw this image that their eyes are blue, nearly white.

Coming back down to earth I spotted another shorebird. I didn't realize till I got home that this is another species.

Once I had the image up on the screen I poured over the birds guides. I don't know how people identify birds in the field--or on the beach, if you will. I had about three different possibilities for this bird, then decided to see if I had any other photos of it. Ah, yes, I see now, a White-rumped Sandpiper. Without this shot I would have not id'd this bird correctly.

Now this bird I knew was not the same as the others, being much taller and larger, with a much longer bill. Still I had to pull up several images and study the books before I decided it was a Willet.

Dark but not black legs, white eyebrow and lores.

It was such a relief to be outside. I didn't care that it was only 55 degrees with a windchill. The sun was shining, I wasn't wearing mittens and there were birds to photograph. I couldn't think of much that could be better than that.

There would be plenty more bird surprises on this trip, but they'll have to wait till next time.


  1. i know most birders, even amateurs, can probably ID quite a large number of birds on sight (or by ear). i hope to get there someday, but i really enjoyed sitting down at the computer with you and going through your, what....600+ photos from your trip? it was like we were there, too! i thought it was quite exciting, especially when we determined that the bird in question was something none of us had seen before. life list! :)

  2. Breathtaking photos that capture the spirit. I could almost hear the waves against the shore, feel that winter Atlantic sun. I especially loved the soaring pelican photos and, of course, the Sanderlings...two of about 10 birds I know (not a bird scientist here) but I do know, from living in North Carolina, that the Sanderlings can be quick (once tried a pic with an Instamatic, lol). You've got a super eye, Marie, and fast reflexes to get these shots. You're very, very talented!