Clellie Lynch: Barefoot birding in balmy January
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — A cock crows in the distance as the sun is rising over the saltpond near the condo in Frederiksted, St Croix, where Danny and I are staying, well, more like lolling around from sea to pool and back again. The temperature at 6:30 a.m. is already 75 degrees. The last few mornings have been a bit misty and rainy. Not today though there are no puffy, inky cumulus, nor low looming, gray stratus clouds. Time to take a stroll along the road, bounded on one side by the Westend Saltpond and on the other by the Caribbean.20
"Chichery, chichery," a gray kingbird lands on the wire insistently calling. Another one answers and lands on a nearby bare branch. Two more come to join the duet perhaps a family. The gray kingbird is larger than our eastern kingbird, but is just as handsome with its erect posture, sleek gray suit, and white chest and belly. Both have a distinctive jittery, trill-y call which makes recognizing any of the kingbird cousins fairly easy, whether in North, South or Central America.
"Guarr," Herons love the saltpond and are visible through the shiny green thickets in a number of places. "Gruuh." Most prominent are the great egrets, so tall, so elegant, so brilliantly white with long yellow bills and stalky black legs. "Croak." Great blue herons dot the shore and wing their way from one side to another. "Quark." At the far end of the pond, two adult yellow-crowned night herons perch on a bare craggy branch peering out over the brackish water. The ubiquitous cattle egrets, well established invaders from Africa, are absent today.
"Guarr, gruuh, croak or quark" I still do not associate one of those loud, scratchy, unmelodic sounds with particular heron or egret. I do know, though, to scan for one of these slow-winged, graceful birds. They are all here: great, cattle or snowy egret (the snowy hasn't decided to drop in yet), great blue, little blue (one comes every day to the rocky shore in front of the condo), green heron and both of the night herons. A chorus of these beautiful birds would drive even the least musical person mad.
A FEW SPECIES
Further along the road where there are only seagrapes and grassy patches on one side and a tangle of shiny-leafed shrubs on the other, the bananaquit emits his ascending buzzy sound followed by a couple of sweet notes. This sharp-beaked, black and yellow bird with white eye stripes eventually pops out from his leafy hide and poses. The sugarbird, as it is known here, has been designated the territory bird of St. Croix. 20
St Croix, being an island, is not host to too many different species. Among them are a variety of pigeons and doves, softly coo-cooing in the morning and throughout the day. The zenaida dove, similar to our mourning dove, is found waddlewalking on the scrabbly ground, flying from bare branch to well-leafed branch or just sitting and staring straight ahead as it rests on a wire. The white-winged dove, similar to the zenaida, is easy to identify with those prominent white wing patches.
Common ground doves are like shrunken, but chunkier versions of our mourning dove. They too like to scurry and scrabble about on the ground under the swaying palms, but seek shade in the tangle of shrubs and wind-stunted trees.
The two common pigeons (discounting the feral pigeon found everywhere in the world) are the white-crowned and the scaly-necked, both appropriately named, making them easy to identify. These are considerably larger than the doves. A small, long-tailed animal dashes across the road a rikkki-tikki-tavi; the mongoose doesn't even turn around to glance at us. He's gone in a nanosecond with only that musky odor remaining behind. We must be near his dusty hovel!
As we are walking along, I say to Danny, "Is that a red-tailed hawk on top of that pole?" The bird comes into focus and I see a very long beak hooked at the end. A magnificent frigatebird! a large, fork-tailed seabird with a wingspan of seven and a half feet. This is the first time I have come across one sitting or resting. Most of the time they float above the sea singly or in groups looking for fleshy scraps of this and that. Called rabijunco by the islanders, the frigatebird is an opportunistic, aggressive feeder often attempting to steal from other birds or from the decks of fishing boats.
The community pool complex left in ruins after a hurricane or two, has been cleaned up a bit in anticipation of restoration, and is nearly devoid of any wildlife. A yellow butterfly nectars at a Ginger Thomas, as the yellow trumpet bush is called. Danny notices a fair-sized bird disappear into a seagrape tree. Eventually it comes out of the tangle. A pearly-eyed thrasher.
The thrasher hops onto the ground, grabs a withered old sea grape by its beak and spends a good five minutes trying to upend its beak and straighten its throat to ingest the too big seed. Eventually it does swallow it without choking. The largest of the Mimidae, the mimics, the pearly-eye is larger than our brown thrasher. This species is recognizable even if you only see it silhouetted in faint early morning light with that sharp, down-turned beak and long tail.
A trio of brown pelicans wings its way from the sea to the small rocky islet in the saltpond. They sit and preen and ignore any other nearby wildlife. A trio of royal terns dives one after another into the sparkling turquoise sea and each comes up with small silvery fish. Suddenly that roosting frigatebird take off after one of the terns. Mr Fearless Frigatebird dives, the tern evades and then soars. The frigatebird only a few feet behind, stalks the tern in an aerial dogfight. Back and forth they zigzag across the sky like a pair of fighter jets. Soon we see the frigatebird returning. The tern escaped, after swallowing his silver tidbit.
On any given morning, we tally up about 25 species often augmented by little blue herons, oystercatchers, or black-bellied plovers flying low over the water and landing on the rocks and coral in front of the condo. Alas soon it is time to leave the warm land and waters of the rabijunco and head home to the wintery landscape of the slate-colored junco.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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