2012-01-19 / Outdoors

A watchful eye discovers fine lines on a walk at Clam Pass

BY ART RITAS
Special to Florida Weekly

Guided walks at Clam Pass sponsored by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are up and running for a new season. I guide the walks some days and walk the boardwalk, back dune trail, marshy area and beach most others.

Today, as I move along the boardwalk, I see the vertical lines of drop roots of the red mangrove trees, the parallel silk lines of the masterful orb weavers webs and then, at the bridge overlooking lower Clam Bay, the wavy line of the crowns of the mangrove trees. One lone snag sticks up, a jagged line pointing to the heavens.

I watch an osprey descend, a foot-long fish in its talons, and land on the snag. He secures his position and the fish by grasping with his three stationary talons and adjusting the one that is moveable. He is the only raptor with a talon that works like the human opposable thumb. I watch. He eats.

I’ve watched similar scenes countless times, but this time there’s something different. The osprey has ripped and devoured several pieces of fish, but the fish is still thrashing. This stark example of the food chain evokes more emotion than flat illustrations in a textbook. Better to see this live than to read about it.

On the back dune trail I use my macro binoculars to see a gopher tortoise half in and half out of his burrow. My binocular eyes stare at the two reptilian eyes, and the eyes stare back. After a time, it seems we have learned something of one another. The tortoise backs into his burrow, and I think of the line of the excavation that runs about 5 feet down and then horizontally for maybe 50 feet.

I emerge from the sandy trail and walk back to a marshy area. Lines of phallic-looking pneumatophores, the breathing tubes that are part of the black mangrove root structure, seem ready to march. I see motion and raise my binoculars to a beautiful sight: a pair of cavorting mangrove buckeye butterflies. When they land, I enjoy a close look at the squiggly white lines and false eyes on their wings.

I move on to Clam Pass for the grand finale: hundreds if not thousands of black skimmers, some perched on a sandy shoal, others in the air doing what they do to deserve their name.

When they are born, their bills, bright red with black tips, are made up of upper and lower mandibles of equal length. But by the time these birds are fully grown, the lower mandible has grown longer than upper. I watch as an adult demonstrates. As it skims the water with its bill open, the lower mandible traces —you guessed it — a line in the water. It scoops up a fish, clamps its upper mandible shut, then soars into the air and eats while flying.

The black skimmer’s Spanish name is rayador, drawer of lines.

Back on the shoal, other skimmers are resting. A human beachcomber walks through their line and they fly off in a graceful airborne wave, only to return to the beach a few seconds later. Repeated disruptions like this can threaten the existence of these beautiful migratory birds.

Walking back, I reflect on the spiritlifting quality of the many beautiful lines in nature. Join us on a Clam Pass walk and you may see fine lines you’ve never seen before. ¦

— Art Ritas is a volunteer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

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