MARIANNE

In the winter, Florida's beaches are filled with snowbirds enjoying sand and surf while they escape snow, ice and freezing temperatures. In fact, I used to be one of them. But now that I'm a year-round citizen of Florida, I've discovered the best time of year to enjoy the beaches is summer. The crowds are gone and the Gulf waters are as warm as an August rain. Most importantly, the turbulent surf transforms into a gentle lullaby, easy for a lake swimmer like myself to handle.

My husband and I drive to the beach which is only ten minutes from our home, two or three times a week after dinner when the sun is low on the horizon and a delightful breeze keeps us cool. We take a long walk along the water's edge and then I swim while my husband watches the setting sun from a beach chair. I usually join him in time to watch the sun disappear on the horizon and the sky fill with a spectacular panorama of colors.

We do go to the beach in the winter but just for walks since the water is cold, the surf is high and the beaches are crowded. During a walk last winter, we passed a family who looked as if they had been there most of the afternoon; two large umbrellas firmly entrenched in the sand, several blankets and an ice chest spread around them. But what caught my eye was a young girl kneeling in front of a cormorant only a few feet from the family. The bird had its wings down and wasn't moving as the girl inched closer. This was not normal behavior.

We walked on but I kept worrying about the cormorant. When we walked past the group on the way back, the family was still there and so was the bird. I asked them how long the cormorant had been there. For a couple of hours, they said. Initially, the bird had spread its wings to dry them, then it closed its wings and hadn't moved since. I walked through the dry sand and knelt a few feet from the bird. It blinked its eyes at me but didn't move. It appeared to be a young cormorant and something was obviously wrong. I pulled out my phone and searched for the number of the bird rescue that was located on the Island. After leaving information about the bird and directions to this spot on the beach on the message service, we left but I was tempted to stay and be certain the bird was cared for.

When we resumed our walk, my husband reminded me (again) of my first attempted bird rescue shortly after we moved to this area. We were walking on the beach when we passed a shore bird standing on one foot. I, of course, worried that something was wrong with the bird's other foot and walked around looking for a cell phone to borrow so I could call the bird rescue (I had left mine at home). Then we walked a bit further and came upon several more birds also standing on one foot. When we got home, I looked up 'Florida birds that stand on one leg' and found dozens of photos of birds in this position. My husband will never let me forget this one!

I actually did participate in a bird rescue not too long after we moved here. I was writing stories for a local paper and had the opportunity to accompany a couple, Donna and Bob, who ran a bird sanctuary and responded to calls about birds in peril. They took me with them to a marina where someone had reported sighting a young pelican that appeared to be tangled in some fishing line, a much too common occurrence for shore birds. We walked to the main dock and Donna, who was only about five feet tall and close to my age, began throwing handfuls of bait fish across the dock from a pail she was carrying. About twenty pelicans flew in to pick up the fish, most of them mature birds but also a few youths identifiable by their brown feathers.

"There he is," Bob shouted.

"I see him," Donna answered.

And then I saw him, a young brown pelican nibbling at the food, a three foot piece of fishing line hanging under his wing. Donna put the bucket down and dove across the dock for the bird, grabbing him in a firm hold across her lap, demonstrating an expertise that came from long practice. While she held him motionless, Bob walked over and carefully extended the wing with the fishing line, exposing a fishing hook lodged in the bird's breast by the wing. Carefully, he worked the hook out and they both examined the wound. After deciding that the pelican was not badly injured, Bob sprayed the wound with a disinfectant and Donna let him go. We watched him fly away. Then they threw out more handfuls of food and the young pelican, none the worse for his ordeal, flew in again to take part in the feast.

Pelicans were also the stars of a beach walk on another day. We were walking on the beach at the south end of Anna Maria Island, past the remains of old piers, when a flock of more than two-hundred pelicans landed near us, on the beach and on the pieces of the pier protruding from the water. Dozens of the birds dove into the shallow water at the same time, coming up with small fish that were swarming by the thousands near the pier. We watched, transfixed, as the birds dove over and over again. We wanted to record this amazing sight but we knew it would be long over before we could go home for the camera and return. We would have to be satisfied with our memories.

Several year ago, we met friends on Sanibel Island and decided to take a walk on the beach. When we began our walk, we all noticed that the sand was covered with unusually large, beautiful shells. When we got closer, we realized the shells were moving. Each one was a live animal (or a mollusk), washed up on the shore by some force of nature. We started tossing as many as possible back into the surf but soon gave up, the quantity was too immense.

Later I found out that collecting live shells (any specimen containing an inhabitant) is outlawed in Florida. Sanibel and Captiva Island are refuge islands and favorite places for shelling although people are urged to limit their empty-shell collections as these shells replenish the beaches. For me, the amazing opportunity to see the live mollusks crawling on the beach was more than enough; I had no desire to take any home.

It's fun to watch people fishing on the beach, their lines stretched out into the surf while they lean back in folding chairs enjoying the view. Most of the time, there is a blue heron standing nearby, hoping for a snack if the catch is too small to keep or if the fisherman (or woman) shares a few bait fish with the bird when he or she is ready to go home. The possibility of a free meal diminishes their natural fear which is not always a good thing.

On Friday nights, the Manatee Beach holds a different attraction: the drum circle. Local people bring drums, cans, tambourines and other percussion instruments that beach visitors can shake, rattle or pound to celebrate the sunset. The drum circle members arrive with chairs and instruments about an hour before sunset and invite anyone who is interested to join them. Of course children are especially excited to have this opportunity to pound a drum and some adults (like me) are also drawn into the circle. The drumming reaches its peak as the sun melts into the horizon, another week gone by on Florida's beautiful beaches.

I was telling our neighbors about our evenings on the beach and how lovely it is to swim that time of night when I caught the two of them exchanging looks. Did you know, they asked me, that sharks come into the shallows to feed at dusk? I did, sort of, but hadn't really given it much thought. I had to admit hearing it out loud was a little scary. But I'd never seen one and had never heard about a shark attack on Anna Maria's beaches. So now I'm a bit more cautious, swimming before our walk instead of after and always picking a spot in the water that has a fair amount of people nearby. Certainly they would taste better than me. It is going to take more than sharks to keep me off the beach and out of the water during Florida's summer months.

Please visit my blog: http://www.stayingyounginflorida.com

Watch for my book: "Moving into Murder"

Email: jean@steigers.us