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And the Birds Came

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I am on the beach at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and I have been quietly watching a fisherman catching and processing two Florida pompano. 

There followed a perfect lion kill tableau, complete with marauding hyenas and jackals, all disguised as a fisherman and a few innocent-looking Florida beach birds.

I got down on my knees and shot and shot quickly as the birds quarreled over the pompano carcasses. Macabre? Perhaps, but no more than my own species’ quick rendering of a beating heart and frantic eye into freezable filets.

First and boldest is the ruddy turnstone, here in winter plumage. I adore turnstones, smart opportunistic little brawlers that they are. They aren’t afraid to challenge a gull ten times their size if good food is at stake. 

While a ring-billed gull chokes down a morsel of fish, the turnstone darts in.

A ringbill tugs at a fish’s entrails as a boat-tailed grackle sizes up its chances of joining in. The low-angle evening light lends an epic quality to the tableau, with small hillocks in the sand reading as a dunescape.

The scene constantly changes from one carcass to the other. A laughing gull strides up to scatter the turnstones and a lone sanderling. I’m intrigued by the gull’s posture; it adopts the head-tossing, hunch-backed profile of a juvenile begging from its parent. Odd—is it begging the turnstones for a chance at the pompano? Does the sight of food just set off this juvenile behavior in a mature bird?

 A ring-billed gull swoops in and holds forth over a carcass.

It'll have to get what it can before the boat-tailed grackle steals it.

The ringbill manages to free some food before a herring gull and then a great black-backed gull swoop down and end its picnic.

Not many birds argue with a great black-backed gull, pirate of the sea. The herring gull manages to hold it off for awhile

until a young great-black-backed joins in.

and when they are done there are fragments, just enough for the boat-tailed grackles

little black coroners, pronouncing the pompano dead at last. Oh how I love this shot.

Used up, all the way up, by Homo sapiens, who took the lion's share,
 followed by four species of gull, two shorebirds and an icterid. Eight species all feasting on a silvery lavender blue pompano rimmed in lemon yellow

who only minutes before had been swimming in light surf on a warm evening on Cape Canaveral

whose eyes looked into mine and found me unable to help

but willing to swallow hard and document its final hour.

The fisherman packed up and went home, pompano filets swinging in a grocery bag

leaving me amazed and standing on an empty beach

wondering at the circle of life and death, the beauty of fresh food from the sea, hand-caught;

the stories in every little thing that happens,

 which are there to be shared by the spirit

left open to the thrust of grace.*

I turned back to find my children still playing in the same warm surf

and walked back to join them

rinsed clean 

thinking about everything and nothing at all.

                                                                                                       *Bruce Cockburn, of course.


This is perhaps the best piece of nature writing I've ever read, Julie. [And I only put "perhaps" in there to mitigate the tinge of spousal "objectivity."]

Amazing story told in the most compelling manner. Wow!

You know, you should write a book...

Beautiful, a morning prayer.

Posted by Amy Girten February 24, 2011 at 6:56 AM

Wonderful! How many times I have watched the same, but never sought to document. Thank you for this.

Posted by Liz cQuaid February 24, 2011 at 7:05 AM

You know, you should write a book...

Ain't it da troot?

Beautifully written:)

Wonerful interaction. Reminds me of watching a wolf kill in Yellowstone and seeing who all comes to the party. I was surprised to see a large group of Ring-bills yesterday just where the Mohican River meets the Kokosing. I have never seen them there before. One actually dipped something out of the river. Great stuff.

Good stuff.
If you could have stayed a little longer, the ghost crabs would have made an appearance.

Someday we'll have an anthology of Julie's writings to read/savor... it may be called "Whipple Pond" ;-)

I'm going to that area, Merritt Island, and Clearwater(opposite side) and I'm looking forward to maybe seeing some of the birds you showed! And it was a great story!

Posted by Anonymous February 24, 2011 at 3:23 PM

What Bill said, in spades.

What a wonderful series from the Florida beach, Julie. From the family interactions to the fisherman to the avian clean-up crew. Beautiful!

Beautifully seen and told. Thank you. Susan E

Posted by Anonymous February 27, 2011 at 5:14 AM
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