When I began birding with Duval County Audubon Society (Florida), I expected an outing to be cancelled when the temperature fell below 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius). Instead, there was a large group eagerly anticipating the sighting of a rare bird – the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
When I saw photos of the group, I looked as though I was wearing the clothing of two people. And I was still cold! After that day, I decided to make some changes. I ordered long johns, and a wool cap, sleeveless gloves, undershirts, zip-up sweatshirts (which can be layered), and wool knee socks. I already had leg-warmers and a well insulated, but light-weight jacket.
Yesterday was cold – at least by Florida standards. It was 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius), and felt like 48 (8.8). Add ocean air and a 15 mph wind, and it was frigid. I stayed out 6 hours, often wading through sand that sank 3 inches or more under foot. It produced a muscle burn akin to riding a bike uphill. In some areas, the wind swept the sand into channels and into one’s eyes. The sky was gray with approaching rain, due after nightfall. The winds sang a ghostly chorus.
There weren’t many people at this oceanside park. A couple from Asia stood knee-deep in the water. The woman wore rubber gloves that went past the elbow. She bent down and scooped up a Cannonball Jellyfish. These jellies are common here, and inclement weather pushes them ashore until the beach is dappled by carcasses.
I say hello in passing.
“Jellyfish!” the woman smiles.
She slips the creature onto a pile. One 5-gallon bucket is full. The second is half-way there.
“What do you do with them?” I ask.
“Eat them!” Her tone says, “Of course!”
I nod and continue walking, but then backtrack. “How do you cook them.”
“Steam for two hours,” answers the man.
The rest of the park is isolated. Campers have tucked themselves into RVs or have ventured out for the day. I feel alone and comfortable with my thoughts.
I see a flock of Black Skimmers and try to photograph them. They are being pelted by sand. I make my way to a jetty and brace my knees, hands, and camera against one of the boulders. Still I waver in the wind. The sand enveloping the birds reads as mist. Only the picture below is salvageable.
I come across a mixed flock of 400 or so birds. Mostly Semipalmated and Least Plovers. A smaller group of Red Knots. A sprinkling of Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.
To go around the primary flock, I must walk between the Red Knots and others. As I walk, all of the birds become nervous. So I fold my knees and kneel on the beach. Face the same direction as the birds. Ask to join the group.
They approve by ignoring me. I’m just another huddled creature battered by wind and sand. Slowly, I draw out my camera. Only predators and potential victims move swiftly. Speed sends the wrong message.
The wind shakes my arms. I point the camera toward the group and wait for something interesting. I don’t linger too long on any one cluster of birds. Only hunters choose targets. I find a group that’s cooperative. Wait for a break in the wind gusts. Snap the shutter as my arm is tossed upwards. I’ve a picture of spindly bird legs.
The birds are tolerant, then suddenly burst skyward. What did I do? How did I scare them?
A parasail has extended across the adjoining salt-marsh. The birds quickly return when the parasailer passes.
I need to get closer for better pictures. I turn my back toward the Red Knots and slowly rise. Then I face into the wind with the flock. I move forward in a side-stepping fashion. After the third step, the birds shift uneasily. They settle when I sit once again.
Ahead of me, I notice a Ruddy Turnstone. It has found a large, partially eaten fish and is busy plunging its head inside the cavity. I’ve never seen a Ruddy with blood-stained feathers before.
Food is scarce on days like these. The fish go deep and the waves are churning. Flying against the wind exhausting.
I see a flock of 300 Herring Gulls. Most are resting, but others are gorging themselves on stranded jellies. As they break up the larger pieces, other peeps rush in for the scraps.
I discover a Common Loon. The tide is rising, and it lies on the sand belly up, caressed and turned by the frothing sea. Its keel bone protrudes. Was it unable to find food? Was the belly filled with plastic, preventing it from eating? Did it simply burn all reserves during a long migration? These birds can travel hundreds of miles in a single day. And what happens if you end your journey on a day like today?
I cross a desolate stretch. Nothing but me and the roar of angry waves. I watch for interesting shells and find a test, the delicate skeleton of a sea urchin, covered with pinpoint perforations. In spite of the crashing waves it has survived unscathed. I place it carefully into my belly bag. There’s a shelf at home where I place my sea-finds.
At the car, I wolf stir fry from an insulated bowl. Savor a mug of coffee. It’s a ritual to ease myself back to the modern world. I say my good-byes through the windshield before pulling away. I’m only a guest from a world filled with computer screens and plasticized conveniences. I’m grateful for things that make life physically easier, but these same things steal from the soul. It’ll be only days before I need a spiritual recharge – and another day of birding.