No matter how many times I make the trip, coming across the Memorial Causeway at night and seeing the inky Clearwater Harbor reflect the shimmering alabaster lights of the hotels fills me with serenity.
Despite hundreds of trips over the bridge and many minutes spent staring into the cerulean harbor while waiting for the old drawbridge to allow my passage, I’d never explored Bird Island. I never even knew about it.
It’s 80 degrees at 11 a.m. and on impulse I throw my paddle in the back of my car and head to the causeway, parking in a small paved lot on the west side of the new bridge. My sunflower yellow paddleboard stands out against the harbor’s reflection of the sapphire sky. I push through the wind and avoid Jet Skiers and tour boats plowing through the channel. On the south side of the channel the water shallows and comes alive with amethyst-starred lilac jellyfish no bigger than the palm of my hand.
You won’t find it on any chart, but most local seafarers know what you mean if you tell them you’re heading over to Bird Island. Even if you haven’t heard the name, once you witness the prismatic explosion of birds that greets approaching boaters, you know you’ve found Bird Island.
My introduction to Bird Island comes not from a bird itself but the “X marks the spot” tracks of great blue herons. Beneath the clear curtain of saltwater I find evidence that these birds patrol the perimeter of their island for fish and shells. A few yards away three such herons stand sentinel, fixing their wolfish sulfur eyes on me. Behind them, red mangrove roots twist towards the sky in a barnacled jungle. I can hear the marbly “wap-wap” of a bird but can’t tell if I’ve alerted a wedge of egrets or a gulp of cormorants to my presence. So alarming is this gravelly call that I opt not to make landfall, instead choosing to sit on my board and paddle the island’s borders. As I pass, I scare a bowl of spoonbills- easily four or five, the most I’ve seen up close at one time - from their shelter amid the verdigris mangrove thicket.
The wind shifts and I fumble my paddle, splashing water as I try to regain momentum. The noise cues the island’s birds and a cacophonous rainbow explodes from within: midnight blue herons, fuschia spoonbills, goldenrod-streaked herons, velvet brown pelicans and a myriad of other birds burst out of the sunlight-dappled buttery leaves. Instead of taking flight to another island they light in higher branches, making a colorful line atop the squat, gnarled mangroves as they reassemble their feathers. Beneath them, silvery white streaks give evidence of long-term residence.
There is nothing here I have not seen before: I often see spoonbills soaring overhead and nightly witness egrets and herons plucking dinner from tidal pools. Pelicans? Well, who among us can’t -pardon the expression- swing a dead cat without hitting one or two Florida brown pelicans?
But here’s what I’ve not seen before: as my paddle pushes me into the wind and around the south side of Bird Island, I see pelicans preening one another, using their ridiculously oversized beaks to put one another’s feathers right again. I see three herons move in unison as they hunt their way through the tidal zone, an anomaly when I’m used to seeing them spaced farther apart. I see enough spoonbills to make a softball team. I watch blue herons stroll the banks of the southern shore with the pride and prance of the glamorous vacationers on Miami’s ritzy south beach shores. I am minimized in the face of the avian community.
I know, of course, that Florida’s bird population dwarfs us humans. But this is the first time I’ve been so acutely aware of that difference in number. Today I do not share their presence with manatee, dolphin, gator or turtle: this is no state park with other paddlers or a tiny creek that sees the odd egret. Aside from a school of mullet that race by and two fishermen cast netting in the distance, I am alone in their world. And although I know this, I forget it most days, until every bird I pass reminds me as they track their pinpoint wild eyes on me: I am the outsider here, a stranger in their city. No matter what we build - not the Sand Key bridge to the south or the speedboats docked to the west - this is their world.
I am just a guest allowed to paddle past.
More about Bird Island:
Best for bird watchers, nature lovers, and kayakers. Accessible only by watercraft; vessels must cross the main channel into the Clearwater Municipal Marina to reach this island and, for this reason, we suggest avoiding the island on the weekends and holidays. Paddle time en route, less than 30 minutes each way. Paddle time around the island varies. No facilities; bring water. The National Audubon Society protects this bird sanctuary; the society and the city of Clearwater allow neither landing nor trespassing.
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