Monday, October 6, 2014

A Thin Slice of Natural History from St. Joe Beach, Late Summer, 2014

The place lies just east of Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Port St. Joe. It’s a fine, quiet beach, almost uninhabited at this season-over time of year. At this time of year, too, it’s a willet beach—more willets than gulls, more willets than sanderlings.
            The willet is that long-legged, long-billed, generally drab-gray bird awkwardly and evermore prowling the shoreline in search of a crustacean or two. Once I saw a willet eat a crab by taking one leg in its bill and shaking until the rest of the thing went flying, gulping that morsel, then high-footing over and taking hold of another leg. The legless carapace, presumably delectable in comparison, went last. Seemed like a lot of trouble at the time, but given the limited capacity of the willet gullet, it might be the only way to get the job done.
            Willets are suddenly not dull when they take flight and show off the flashy black and white striping on their wings, which is what the one Pat caught was doing. What Pat was doing was fishing, and the bird flew straight into his just-casted line. It was tangled up in a second and crash-landed in the water, then struggled wildly to get to the shoreline. Man, you’ve never heard such caterwauling. The downed and panicked bird was hollering its high-pitched alarm—HREEE! HREEE! HREEE!—and 50 feet behind us as we ran toward it, its mate was screaming back. When the bird got so tangled it couldn’t go any further, I eased its wings down and picked it up. It quieted, and Pat and I gave it a close look. Not hooked, thank you Jesus. Pat took out the nail clippers he uses to snip his line and snipped away while I held it still. The freed willet wheeled east down the beach, its consort in pursuit.
            All of which was a terrible irony because it was Myrtle, our hard-headed, mule-stubborn, abjectly adored golden retriever, who really, really wanted to catch a willet. Myrtle loves the beach so much she’s depressed for days back at home. Surf, sand, scent, it’s all good. And digging. Wow! Myrtle discovered that by digging for cooler sand in the puny shade of our dollar-store umbrellas, she could make whoever’s chair she was digging behind topple over backwards. FUN! Mostly, though, she chased the willets, chased them until she couldn’t chase anymore, then chased another one. Okay, I bet this one won’t fly away . . . dang!
            One early morning Dede and Myrtle went out for the constitutional and walked right up on a great blue heron. The huge bird flapped away with a grunting croak I could hear back up at the house. The next day, my turn, the bird was over being startled and took to taunting the dog, waiting until Myrtle was at full gallop, closing fast, then rising up with that irresistibly slow take-off. It would settle again no more than 100 yards down the beach.
            Also during our stay a number of non-avian species of winged life demanded our notice. Particularly memorable were (1) the little, biting housefly-looking sons of bitches that literally could annoy you right off the beach; (2) the honeymoon-bugs, or love-bugs, a harmless phenomenon, unless you’re having to pick a pair out of your drink every 10 seconds; and (3) the dragon and damselflies that filled the sky off the porch every late-afternoon to feed on mosquitos.
            Or do they eat mosquitos? This question gave rise, more than once, to the kind of conversation that, with a half dozen Google-search-enabled devices lying around, you really don’t need to have anymore but that, thanks to day-drinking, you’re going to have anyway:
            Hey, you think dragonflies are what we used to call mosquito hawks when we were kids?
            You mean the same thing we called skeeter eaters?
            I don’t think it was dragonflies. I don’t think they had big bodies like that.
            No, I’m thinking of a bug that really looks like a mosquito but is like 40 times bigger.
            I’m pretty sure it was dragonflies we called mosquito hawks . . . down in Mississippi.

            Here are the facts, in the sober light of the i-Pad on my desk at home:
·         Crane flies are the long-legged bugs that look like giant mosquitos—not 40 times bigger but maybe 10. Sometimes called “skeeter eaters,” sometimes “mosquito hawks,” they do not eat mosquitos.
·         Dragon and damselflies are just what you think they are—those big, beautiful, buzzing biplanes of bugworld. They too are sometimes called mosquito hawks, and they do eat mosquitos.
·         Neither mosquito hawks nor skeeter eaters exist as species unto themselves.
And a final observation from today’s guest natural historian: crane flies were not in evidence at St. Joe Beach in late September, 2014. Thanks, presumably, to the dragonflies, there weren’t any mosquitos either.


  1. Makes me want to be a great blue heron! Or better, an associate of the ACB, sharing some beach shade with him on a fall afternoon!