Focus on Nature: Winter home is for the birds

We were on Southwest Flight 1003 headed for Florida before the first snowflakes fell on the North Fork. We cruised above the clouds and every once in a while when there was an opening we could see the ribbon of land along the coast. Within an hour of landing. our taxi delivered us to our waiting winter home. It was great to feel the warmth of Florida’s sunshine after we enjoyed the speed of modern-day travel.
After a day or two, we had settled in and Barbara had things pretty well organized to begin our winter vacation. The one thing we always look forward to when we are here is reacquainting ourselves with the wonders that Florida offers.
From our windows we can see brown pelicans almost touching the water with their wings as they glide by. They are fun to watch as they dive into the water for a meal, and when they surface there is always a gull waiting for its share. It isn’t uncommon for the gull to sit on the pelican’s head waiting to grab a tidbit.
Of course, there are always fish crows about, sometimes as many as 20 or more. Gradually we are seeing more and more of these smaller crows back home on the North Fork. They have an entirely different call from the common crows, and that is the easiest way to tell them apart. The fish crow has a raspy call.
Looking out toward the dock we spot a vulture sitting on one of the pilings. This is a bird we have begun to see more and more on the North Fork and on our windmill up in the back pasture, where they love to sit and rest.
Other old friends we see diving around the pilings of the dock are the cormorants. They are the same ones we have at home and create the same problems that many a sailboat owner can vouch for: Their excrement can turn a polished boat into a whitewashed nightmare. Like the cormorants, though much smaller, Forster’s terns can be seen diving for small fish. That comma-shaped black ear patch in winter plumage helps identify this super-white tern.
When we took a walk out along the fishing pier, not too far away we spotted the silhouette of a frigate bird gliding by overhead. This unique-looking large black seabird with its long, angled wings and scissor-like tail is always exciting to see. It is notorious for its habit of stealing meals from other birds.
As we write, a white ibis is passing along the waterfront with a juvenile bird in tow. The adult white ibis is all white with a red bill and feet, and the immature is gray. After a rain one day about 20 of these beautiful all-white birds flew in to enjoy the huge puddle left by the rain at the end of our road. A sight we won’t soon forget.
After getting well settled in we decided to take our first adventure here in Florida, so we headed south to the Mote Aquarium, where wildlife in the area was studied after the Gulf oil spill — a huge complex of education, research and exhibits.
We drove past the main buildings and on toward the water to a preserve, where we looked for shore birds. There is a nice, wide boardwalk through a mangrove swamp area. Mangroves are a most important part of a saltwater ecosystem here in Florida, for they act as a nursery area, spawning area, water quality indicator and a host of other resources that play a vital role in making a habitat for the building blocks of the food chain. They act in the same capacity as our salt marshes back home. It was good to have the hard surface of the boardwalk on which to meander through this important area.
We came to a section of the walk that led out into the bay. Since it was low tide at the time and the birds were feeding, we could see snowy egrets, great egrets, great blue herons, black-bellied plovers, a willet and a little blue heron.
And there were a number of adult white ibis. We could see why nature had provided this bird with its long, specially curved bill, for it was probing deep into the soft mud where other birds couldn’t reach. It was the first time we had witnessed the almost complete submergence of the bird’s bill and head into the soft mud to feed.
As we continued along, the boardwalk opened into a mowed grassland. Here, jittering about before us along the walkway, were some small warblers. We sat for a while in the warm air and with our binoculars were finally able to identify them as palm warblers. Most notable in identifying them was the constant bobbing of their tails.
As we finished off our walk, an osprey called from near its nest high on a 150-foot tower nearby. This was our first of many adventures, with more to follow.