A Spotted Sandpiper bobs its tail on the breakwater and three Horned Grebes dive and feed in Tampa Bay. A Pied-billed Grebe fetches up beside them and an Osprey flies overhead. If it wasn’t for the Osprey, I could be at home, but I’m not. Like the birds, I’ve flown south. Not quite for the whole winter, however, but for a short family visit.
After a day in the air, I think that birds have it easier on migration than humans have in flight. On long cross-continental hauls it’s kind of like being in prison. The new aircrafts in service have about six inches of breathing room, hardly any leg room, and everyone packs roller-cases overhead because the airlines charge $25 per suitcase. There is no room for anything. There are even plans to have aircraft with standing-room only in the future. Not a joke, nor will it be fun when the plane hits an air pocket.
But this column is about birds that fly and Florida has birds. A Little Blue Heron lands on a rock and disappears. It’s uncanny; now you see it, now you don’t. It becomes part of the rock, similar to its northern cousin the Great Blue Heron, which stands stone-like waiting for an innocent fish to swim into its shadow. A mockingbird sings overhead; it’s an evening songster and during nesting season its song goes on and on as the sun seems to flow into the sea.
Back home the robins are out in full force, the local Song Sparrow is defining its nesting territory again and the Pacific Wren is singing from deep in the underbrush, almost impossible to see but easy to hear. All three species of woodpecker are busy. Red-breasted Sapsuckers drum on hollow things to show how large they are and how they will be the best possible parent for tomorrow’s generation; Hairy Woodpeckers call out a sharp, metallic shout and flickers are calling ‘wicka-wicka-wicka’ from the trees.
Woodpeckers have interesting feet. They have two toes forward and two toes back so they can cling cleverly to the trunks of trees as they move up and down feeding on insects under the bark. Flickers are probably nesting already, although they are not the first. At least two pairs of Killdeer already have eggs and their chicks will be running around in early April. Killdeer can have at least two broods a year, maybe even three. Its cousin the Semipalmated Plover hasn’t even returned to the islands yet, it’s still lounging around in sunny country and won’t show up until around late April.
A large hawk soars overhead. It’s gone before I can identify it. It wasn’t a goshawk; they don’t winter in Florida, but on my southeast journey that wonderful book H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald) kept me sane on the long flight. Here she describes a goshawk that had knocked herself out on a fence while hunting and was just being released from her box: “A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk… her eyes were a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room… nothing was wrong with her.”
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