The highlight of my second day in Florida was a Royal Tern.

Not this Royal Tern:

Royal Turn on Honeymoon Island Causeway

This Royal Tern is actually from tomorrow. But I spotted the Royal Tern of the second day on a solitary walk on which I didn’t bring a camera (exactly when I would have seen my Ivory-billed Woodpecker, had I seen one.) I’d gotten up early in the hope – it turned out forlorn – of catching some Rails mucking about in the reeds of the Lake of Tarpons; other than the Tern, the walk’s highlight was when I saw a wandering cat (naughty!) ‘persuade’ a lizard to do the old dropping-the-tail trick, something I’d never seen in nature and was not about to experiment with on my own because I’m just too damn nice (also, too slow to catch a lizard.) The tail arched and thrashed with great vigor. Remarkable, really.

As it turned out, in this instance natural selection was not smiling on the lizard’s cleverness – the cat, probably long since jaded to such stratagems, was ignoring the tail and keeping a firm grip on the much meatier body. Cats being invasive, I did not feel the least bit guilty about distracting the creature with “here kitty” and petting until it dropped its prey. Of course, later investigation would teach me that brown anoles are invasive too, so six of one, half-dozen of the other. Oh well.

Then on to the lake, and a Palm Warbler that was actually living up to its name, and my encounter with the Tern. I have a lot of trouble with Terns; usually I encounter them going out of my field of vision fast and not allowing me a good look at one side or the other of their bodies. If I see the beak, I don’t see the tail, and if I see the tail, the underside of the primaries is only a glimpsed blur, and so on. But the Tern I locked on to above the lake was downright leisurely, circling back again and again, at a convenient height, and often flying into the wind enough that it was slowed considerably. And there was little else above the lake to distract me, other than a plethora of Laughing Gulls, the occasional fly-by Anhinga, and of course roughly ten gazillion Osprey. None of which was easily mistaken for a Tern.

So I was able to study the Tern at leisure, arguing with myself about whether the beak was really more orange or “carrot-red” and just how dark the primaries really were. It was then that I learned a valuable lesson about field guides. I am normally a devotee of my battered Peterson’s, but as it is a seriously out-of-date edition and as I also had an inkling of possibly encountering stray Western birds on the trip, this time I’d opted to bring the National Geographic Guide. Bad decision! Leaving aside issues of overall guide quality, once you’re used to a field guide you’ve trained yourself to do two things: you’ve trained your fingers to automatically flip to or at least near the appropriate pages for Terns – or Doves, or Blackbirds, or whatever – without looking down, and you’ve trained your eyes to make the mental translation between your own particular guide’s illustrational and textual quirks and what you actually see in the field. With an unfamiliar field guide, you have to stop and think about both. And when you’re looking at a fast-moving bird, stopping and thinking while looking down is something you can ill-afford. All your thinking should be done with your eyes on the prize.

Fortunately, this Tern was, as I mentioned, obliging, and I was able to work hir out to my satisfaction. First lifer of the day, and the one I cherished most – even though later, after I put my cell phone through the wash by mistake and had shoes with heels inflicted on me (but in such a generous way that I had no reasonable means to object,) I saw a Roseate Spoonbill feeding in a ditch as I drove to the Inimitable Todd’s father’s birthday party.

Well, ok, really the Roseate Spoonbill was quite damn cool too.

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Common Moorhen Gllinula choloropus cachinnans
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula fulvigula
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
American Coot Fulica atra
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Royal Tern Sterna maxima *LL
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Roseate Spoonbill Ajaia ajaja *LL

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