“Where are all the pigeons?”, he asked. That question from my 8 year-old birding companion revealed much. This is an inquisitive child who had already noticed the differences between seaside Florida and his urban jungle of downtown Boston. We were on an early morning 3 mile walk along the berm with a tidal mangrove swamp on the left and freshwater ditch on the right. At first I was hesitant to attempt this birding trek with him, but I had a plan, and it worked like a charm.
My companion is tech-savvy and has Cornell and engineering roots. As I demonstrated the Cornell generated eBird app on my cell phone his interest picked up. I explained how it would track our progress along the berm with GPS as we entered each bird sighting. The program knew what birds were common in our location and would include our findings in a world-wide data base of observations. He was further enthralled with the iBird Pro app that had drawings and photos of all the birds, showed maps of their winter and summer ranges, and best of all, played their songs and calls. It was all I could do to hold on to my new phone.
Not knowing the level of interest, I decided to leave the binoculars home and do some naked-eye birding. That’s another gadget that we could always add another day. The birding gods were favorable as a striking Red-bellied Woodpecker flew in close by for a great look right at the trail head. Try explaining the bird’s name to a child when the head is clearly red and the belly shows just a hint of pink. In any case it was a good start and a life bird for my fledgling companion.
Another good question: Why is the water on the left salty and the water on the right fresh? Back to the app; I showed him the map where a small gap at Clam Pass let the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico flow into the mangrove swamp at high tide and drain out at low tide. The standing water on the right side of the berm, however, was fresh rainwater runoff. I was relieved he didn’t ask me about the origin of the salt in the gulf.
Our next bird sighting was also red. A beautiful Cardinal was perched and singing right along the trail, perfect for naked eye viewing. We identified several more, just from their songs, later in the walk. A flock of foraging White Ibises was next up, leading to a discussion of the cleverly adapted long curved bill, perfect for poking into the shallow water and soft mud looking for food.
We saw some less common birds as well. A drowsy Black-crowned Night Heron was perched on the low branches of the berm and nearby two patiently posed Green Herons were waiting for passing fish. As we watched them a small crowd of strolling adults gathered and we were able to point out these birds to the curious. I think my young partner was impressed with everyone’s shared interest in the birds–it’s not just a peculiar trait of his grand dad.
I told him that a creative person we both know and love has an unusual way of remembering the field marks and characteristic yellow feet of a Snowy Egret, compared to the other white waders. “When you pee in the white snow it turns yellow.” Hearing this bent him over in uncontrolled laughter, especially since it had originated from his own proper grandmother.
We saw a crow eating a crayfish and were able to identify it as an American Crow from its call. I played the various crow calls on the cell phone app to make the certain ID. My young friend was impressed. A tail-bobbing Palm Warbler crossed our path and he spotted some non-avian fauna as well. A rollicking family of otters were seen on the freshwater side, a rabbit ran for cover along the high-rise wall, and a gator head was seen half submerged in the ditch. I think it was really just a rock, but didn’t want to spoil his excitement of seeing an alligator close-up.
At the end of 3 miles I assumed he had had enough, but low and behold, he asked if we could board the tram and ride to the beach to look for more birds. No problem for me; I could do this all day. The beach gave us some good looks at adult Ring-billed Gulls and a larger juvenile Herring Gull. He was interested that gulls reach full maturity in only four years. I described the sharp talons and beak of the soaring Osprey and we both had to duck as one did a close flyover, as if on cue.
At the end of the day I asked what was his favorite bird. He quickly named the Tricolor Heron, for its beautiful three colors and long sharp bill which I explained was perfect for stabbing a fish. But then he asked, “how does the bird get the impaled fish off its bill to eat it.” I was stumped. “We’ll have to figure that out on a later trip another day.” The mind of an eight year-old is a thing to behold and helps shake six and a half decades of cobwebs from mine.