March 17, 2019
I don’t often go to the beach to take pictures—mostly because the sun is so glaringly bright as it reflects off the sand and water that it’s really hard for me to tell if I’m getting a good picture or not. It didn’t help that we had arrived in the middle of the day and the sun was particularly harsh, but I headed out anyway to see what I might find.
When I first looked down the long stretch of beach ahead of me, I almost changed my mind about walking there. I didn’t see a single bird– but I wasn’t quite sure where else to walk, so down the beach I went.
All of a sudden, birds seemed to pop out of nowhere! Surprisingly, they had been on the beach all along, but had been lying low in the sand and were very well camouflaged. I didn’t know what birds they were at the time, but found out later that the larger one was a Willet and the smaller ones were Sanderlings.
Willets are often seen alone. They walk deliberately, pausing to probe for crabs, worms and other prey in sand and mudflats, or to pick at insects and mollusks. When startled, they react with a piercing call, often opening their wings and running rather than taking flight.
The Sanderling is one of the world’s most widespread shorebirds. Though they nest only in the High Arctic, in fall and winter you can find them on nearly all temperate and tropical sandy beaches throughout the world.
Farther down the shore was a much bigger bird, the Great Egret—also known as the common egret, large egret, great white egret or great white heron. He had a long, skinny, unfamiliar fish in his mouth.
The elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many a North American wetland. Slightly smaller and more svelte than a Great Blue Heron, these are still large birds with impressive wingspans. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill. Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumes in the late nineteenth century, sparking conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds.
Mel told me later that the fish was called a ‘lizard fish’. Its name refers to its mottled brown and whitish coloration, long slender body, large pair of eyes, and wide gape mouth lined with numerous small teeth. If it had legs, it might be confused with a real lizard!
Later, I saw the same Great Egret, or maybe it was his friend, hunting down grasshoppers in the scrubby areas adjacent to the shore. Interesting diet, I thought, which led me to look up more…
The Great Egret eats mainly small fish but also eats amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals and invertebrates such as crayfish, prawns, shrimp, polychaete worms, isopods, dragonflies and damselflies, whirligig beetles, giant water bugs, and grasshoppers. Who knew??
Once I was up in the scrub area of the shore, it was a whole different world—populated by butterflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers and cactus flowers! Beautiful I thought! Much of what I saw, though, was new to me and, once again, I had to go on another kind of search later trying to figure out what everything was.
My beach walk certainly turned up a lot of unexpected surprises!