As pleasant as it is to walk the beach in shorts and barefoot in January, I’m one who really likes winter. It brings, or at least used to bring, relief from the smothering humidity that blankets Northwest Florida’s summers. Not to mention the insects.
'Outdoors' most of the year means the beach or our creeks and rivers; hiking the woods and wet prairies is best left to the crisp, dry days of fall and winter, which this year have been few and far between. I’ve heard many complaints from hunters sweating in their blinds, not the outdoor experience they sought.
Still, we’ve had enough winter to allow me to indulge my desire to explore more of the north shore of Santa Rosa Island.
Winter transforms the island. It’s not just the heat, humidity and insects that have disappeared, so too have most of the tourists and even the locals. No, I’m not misanthropic; I’m happy to see the summer crowds on our community’s playground. But I also value the ability to get away from the crowds and find isolation, and winter provides that space. It has become even more valuable in this electronic era that is another kind of smothering blanket.
It’s remarkable how often you can be alone in a place like Gulf Islands National Seashore, even around a popular spot like Fort Pickens. Pick a cold, blustery day and you will see almost no one, even though those are often the most beautiful days on the island.
Lately I’ve been exploring around Big Sabine Bay. Although within sight of development on the mainland, and not far from the shadow of the Portofino towers, it is a remarkably pristine area that provides a serene feeding ground for a remarkable range of birds. Serene, that is, when people like me aren’t blundering through. Still, birds in our area are integrated into the human habitat, and generally aren’t bothered by our presence so long as it remains respectfully distant. If I give them room, they give me room.
I try to time my walks to coincide with a falling tide. It exposes the sandy flats and muddy shallows of Big Sabine, and the birds treat it like an all you can eat buffet.
One morning recently the flats were alive with the movement and chatter of myriad species of birds poking the sand, stalking through the shallows or skimming the bottom.
A group of pelicans sat quietly on the tip of Big Sabine Point like a cloister of wise elders, warming themselves in the sun after a morning spent fishing in Santa Rosa Sound. A trio of red-breasted mergansers powered through the shallows of the upper bay, their heads below the surface in pursuit of small prey. Their foraging excited gulls that began to dive amongst the ducks in pursuit of small fish and crabs disturbed by the hunt. This flustered the ducks and created a bit of a shouting, splashing, wing-beating dispute, ended by the ducks flying to a different part of the neighborhood.
Ospreys, usually omnipresent, were notably absent, perhaps explained by the two bald eagles sitting serenely in a tall snag overlooking the bay, waiting lazily for an osprey to catch a fish they could steal. They watched closely as I worked my way across the tidal pools and creeks atop the bay, finally taking wing and gliding east on wings outstretched in the stiff breeze. They returned later with a third eagle, circling back toward the point as I headed away, following my footsteps on the beach to find the return path. Mine were the only human footsteps I saw.