In the blink of an eye, this bird reminds us how much there is to learn

Great Blue Heron

Anders and I are back in Florida for the next several weeks, indulging a passion for chasing the birds. It’s our sixth birding adventure to the winter home of millions of birds – from stately herons and egrets, to sassy songbirds, opportunistic seagulls and menacing hawks.

It’s like reuniting with old friends — hearing the familiar squawks and calls, being able to distinguish a breeding bird with only a glance, and knowing that a warbler is a Palm just by the shake of its tail feathers.

Palm Warbler

We started this birding quest not knowing the difference between a seagull and a tern, never mind the pipers and plovers. By day we’d search for birds to photograph. By night we’d thumb though the guidebook page by page, comparing our photos with the colors of beaks, feathers and feet to figure out just what it was we had found.

We’ve come a long way in our knowledge of birds, and it’s all too easy to puff up and shake a little tail feather myself. (Aren’t I something, looking through my new binoculars and being the first one to spot a Red-shouldered Hawk hiding in the middle of a palm tree. I have taken to calling myself the Hawk Whisperer.)

Red-shouldered Hawk

While revisiting some of the wildlife sanctuaries near our campground in Melbourne on Florida’s northeast coast, I realized I was starting to get a teeny bit bored. The first time you see a Roseate Spoonbill foraging, it’s magical. (Click here for the video.) The fifteenth time, not quite so much.

Just about then, at Viera Wetlands just up the coast, along walked a Sandhill Crane. (They do in fact walk almost right up to you. For this video, click here.)

With a blink of that Crane’s eye, my perspective on repetitive birding got rearranged. Think you’ve seen it all? Better look again.

Something really weird was happening with the Crane’s eye. The right half of it was glowing like an ember, but the other half appeared strangely dull. It might be cataracts – mine, not the Crane’s.

The crane’s extra eyelid is nearly closed here
And here it is showing its eye wide open

That night, cozied up in our camper after a quick supper of sautéed zucchini over spaghetti, Anders got down to the business of sorting through the day’s photos he’d shot with a powerful telephoto lens. (He always does this, shoots hundreds of frames, only to whittle down to a superior few.) And suddenly there it was on the computer screen, a super close shot of the Sandhill Crane’s partly shrouded eye.

The crane and companion heading off to brighter pastures

(Wow! Something new to research. No bored birder now.)

Nictitating membrane on display

Turns out that in addition to the obvious top and bottom eyelid, Cranes have a third lid called a “nictitating membrane.” The membrane slides horizontally over the eye to help keep it moist and protect the eye from dust and debris. So simple, and yet so fascinating.

So what did I learn? It’s good to be reminded that species are different, with astounding details that serve a purpose in nature’s grander scheme. Just be still. Be patient. Stay humble. And always open your eyes and take a closer look.

Here are some of the other old friends we’ve gotten reacquainted with around Florida: 




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