Dinner

Snow is falling outside our window at the moment, a gray-white veil that softens silhouettes of trees and gives the backyard a dreamlike feel. Sitting here in this big comfy chair, lulled by the falling snow, it feels very odd to think that only a few days ago we were in Florida visiting family. One of our favorite things when we’re there is to go to different county parks and look for birds.

This year, we found the usual herons and egrets, shorebirds and water birds, as well as bluebirds, Carolina chickadees, bald eagles, and a brown-headed nuthatch. We admired a red-shouldered hawk perched on a light pole down the street from our family’s house, and we even came upon three sandhill cranes dancing together at the edge of a small pond. The tall cranes lifted their giant wings, leapt gracefully into the air, and bent to pick up small objects on the ground, which they tossed lightly over their heads.

Hundred of robins flew back and forth daily in loose flocks, and then perched in the groves of bald cypress trees that dotted the neighborhood. The neighborhood was also a favorite haunt of a large flock of turkey vultures and black vultures. They soared through the sky, or rested on tree limbs, and often twenty or more perched on the sloping ground around the retention ponds, which locals refer to as lakes, soaking up the sunshine and watching traffic pass by on the road. We wondered how such large birds found enough carrion to eat in that heavily-developed area.

One day it rained, and we stayed in the house reading, playing Scrabble, and watching four hooded mergansers in the small pond behind the house. On the computer, we tracked a big green blob of rain as it moved slowly across the Gulf of Mexico. By late afternoon, the big green blob moved to the east, the rain let up, and a few patches of blue sky appeared, so I put on my jacket, slung binoculars around my neck, and went out for a walk. The air was pleasantly warm and felt slightly muggy, and every so often a few rays of sun broke through the cloud cover. Vultures soared overhead in the light breeze, and a flock of robins flew past. When I rounded the corner I noticed four vultures on the ground at the edge of a yard, dining on a gray squirrel carcass, which most likely they had found in the road. A turkey vulture was eating while the others watched, but when I came back that way a few minutes later a black vulture had taken over.

At the end of the block, 14 black vultures and turkey vultures were gathered around a large retention pond. Half a dozen perched on a fence, a few stood beside the pond, and a few were clustered around a dead fish on the ground. I heard a caw sound, and looking up discovered I was not the only one watching the scene. A very attentive crow, perched on a streetlight, was leaning forward and cawing, as if it would have liked to have some of that fish. The vultures ignored me, and the crow, but whenever one of the vultures hopped over and tried to get too close to the fish the turkey vulture, which was eating drove it away.

For about 10 or 15 minutes, the vultures continued to stand around watching, while one plucked at the fish, but suddenly the view through my binoculars changed. Instead of a vulture, I was looking at a very large black bird with a white head and white tail. An adult bald eagle had landed beside the vultures. It sauntered over to the fish, the vultures quickly stepped back, and the bird, which had been eating the fish dropped it. The eagle picked up the fish in its bill, spread its huge black wings, and took off over the pond as the flock of vultures scattered into the air. The eagle rose over the pond, banked to the left and, followed by the crow, who was flying only a few feet behind it cawing loudly, flew out of sight.

I turned, and walked back down the street to my own dinner.

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