When one tires of birding while slogging through the Everglades, Panamanian jungle, or Himalayan foothills, there’s always a beach chair waiting at Clam Pass in Naples, Florida. There’s even a new take-out store on the beach to enhance this sedate version of the sport. This was my preference this week as the early February temperatures reached the 70’s and the humidity remained low, just about perfect for some casual beach birding.
I must stand out like a sore thumb, sitting on my low beach chair by the water’s edge, clothed in long-sleeved and long-legged attire and hiking shoes, while surrounded by barely clad bathers frolicking in the Caribbean aqua surf. The camera, long telephoto lens, and binoculars should declare my birding intentions, but I still get some curious looks.
I wonder if the bathers grasp the significance of this unusual intertidal habitat, surviving in the midst of elegant high-rises and urban sprawl. Our predecessors have done well to preserve it. Clam Pass is a narrow cut through the otherwise uninterrupted miles of white sand beach. It is a Chesapeake-like estuary in miniature, bringing saltwater inland on the tide, into a myriad of channels among an extensive mangrove swamp.
Fresh rainwater enters the swamp from the inland side, but during the dry winter it’s mainly the washing of the tides, in and out, that allows the mangroves to survive. They are unique tropical and subtropical shrubs that come in three varieties, red, white, and black.
The Red Mangrove, named for its red roots, is the most salt tolerant of the three and thrives in the deeper water. Its roots form a buttress at the base, protecting it from the waves. The Black and White Mangroves are named for their bark color and are found on slightly higher and drier mud. All three have evolved a root system that filters salt from the water and have additional aerial roots or pneumatophores that absorb oxygen from the air.
It was a bit of a struggle to preserve Clam Pass a few years ago. A strong storm and high surf nearly choked it off and moved it a few hundred feet to the south, threatening the beach store and restaurant. While waiting for the Army Corp of Engineers to come to the rescue, our neighborhood armed dozens of hearty volunteers with shovels to restore the channel by hand. At times it all seemed hopeless, but today the pass remains open, at least until the next great storm.
The birds of Clam Pass include large flocks of Black Skimmers, sleeping Willets, Terns, and Sanderlings chasing the waves at the water’s edge. White Ibises occasionally fish in the surf but are more often seen in the calmer waters of the swamp. There’s an Osprey platform and active nest in the dunes, even in February. There is really no off season for mating here in southwest Florida.
The most valuable pointer I can give fledgling shorebird photographers is to get low. The low eye-to-eye angle is much more pleasing than the downward shot. I usually plant a low beach chair right among the birds and after a few minutes they approach me closely, as if I was a member of their flock. I’ve seen fellow photographers actually lay down in the wet sand and crawl across the beach, but I’ll leave that technique to younger bones.
To access the beach one must travel on the boardwalk which tunnels through the mangroves. Along the way you may be lucky to spot a Roseate Spoonbill or Belted Kingfisher. You’ll undoubtedly see or hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker or Red-shouldered Hawk. We had a resident Eastern Screech Owl perched daily right along the boardwalk for several years, but alas, it has not been seen this year.
But the bird-of-the-day for today was the Brown Pelican, dive bombing the surf amidst the bathers, right where the Clam Pass waters merge with the Gulf of Mexico. The blending of brackish and saltwater here must have attracted fish and the Pelican air show.
The prehistoric-looking birds are truly ancient with a skull fossil found in France dating back 30 million years. They were one of the large birds that bordered on extinction due to DDT and soft egg shells in the 1970’s, but have rebounded since. The popular pelican poem came to mind, yet again:
A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
Its beak can hold more than its belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?
Dixon Lanier Merritt