It’s said that the avian families of Larids, along with the Corvids, are the most intelligent of the birds. I have no reason to doubt this, especially after seeing the gull standing watch over the sand castle on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida. I may not be able to convince you that the bird built the castle, but one cannot entirely rule that out. During the same birding excursion I saw this very same bird dropping shells from great heights onto hard surfaces, making use of Newtonian Laws to obtain its meal. They’re smarter than you think.
I tried to convince my birding companions into a Big Day birding in Southwest Florida, but the enthusiasm was muted, and instead we headed to Sanibel Island for a more sedate session. That’s not to say it was not enjoyable or productive. Sanibel, and its companion Captiva, are barrier islands off the west coast of Florida, formed 6,000 years ago by the currents of the Gulf of Mexico. The Calusa were the first human inhabitants, but the birds predated even them on this semi-tropical gem. A causeway was built from the mainland in 1963 and extensive human development followed. Luckily, for us and the birds, more than half of these islands are protected wildlife sanctuaries.
The birding started while driving the long, elevated causeway. Brown Pelicans, Osprey, and gulls flew along a eye level tempting us with flight shots out of the moving car. Forget it; it never works. Our first stop was at the Sanibel Lighthouse and beach at the far southern tip of the island. During the spring migration of 2020 we witnessed an impressive fallout of warblers in the scrub brush surrounding the lighthouse. Apparently the north-bound migrants, exhausted from their long flight over the Gulf, replenish themselves at this welcome sojourn. It was quite a show then, but this January the scrubs were empty.
The beach however was crowded with both birds and people. The latter were busy fishing, searching for shells, sunbathing, or just strolling. We three birders, ladden with cameras and binoculars were in a definite minority. Gulls, including the Lesser Black-backed, were the most common birds seen. There was a resident Reddish Egret dancing in the surf, and a nesting Osprey as well. An informed birder clued us into a recent sighting of a Snowy Plover a half mile up the beach, but we never found it.
The Reddish Egret deserves a special mention. Other egrets are quiet waders and patient fishers. The Reddish, however, dances and flails in the shallow water as if it is half starving. Its impatience reminds me of fishing with my grandson who is constantly moving the pole and line, checking the bait, and generally acting like a normal pre-adolescent. Some say the antics of the bird are meant to create shadows and confusion among the fish below. It must work. If you’re on the lookout for this bird, beware that “reddish” is the correct description. It is more a dirty pink / rust / purple mix, than genuine red, and has a rare all-white morph thrown in just to keep us birders on our toes.
Then it was off to the famous Ding Darling NWR, the place where we finally found the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo last year. This is one of the places east of the Mississippi that all birders have heard of, and most have visited more than once. I place it on a short list, along with Magee Marsh in Ohio, and Cape May, New Jersey as our eastern birding Meccas. The refuge is on the inland side of the island with a long one-way road cutting through the mangroves with tidal pools on each side. Mel did the driving while Andy and I called out the stops at each wide vista. If we were doing a “big day” you could drive through without stopping and still tick off most of the birds, but we decided to take our time and enjoy the scenery, birds, and fellow birders, many of whom had birding stories to share.
We did not see the Mangrove Cuckoo this year, but did get some good shots of the more common waders. There were also a few shorebirds sighted at some distance. A flock of Dowitchers flew in, and as is inevitable, a debate ensued whether they were the short or long-billed species. This can quickly take you into the birding weeds, except for Andy who hedged by declaring that there were some of each.
Ding Darling is also noted for its wintertime flocks of the American White Pelican. Apparently the birds breed inland throughout the continent but spend their winters along the coast. It is appreciably larger than its more common cousin, the Brown Pelican, and is among the heaviest of all the flying birds. Smartly, it has given up the dangerous diving antics of the Brown for a much less showy and risky bottoms-up feeding behavior, similar to the dabbling ducks.
I”m still pulling for a Big Day down here in Florida, trying to surpass our 80 species count of several years ago. But with gasoline prices rising, paling energy, and the fun of just birding slowly, it will understandably be a hard sell. The alternative is not bad.