John Beasley Park is one of the best places to get to know the Emerald Coast. The sand and water are beautiful, parking is simple, and a covered pavilion offers shaded picnic areas, freshwater showerheads, and restrooms. It is also a great place to bird, even in the middle of the day.
I wanted to check out this local birding scene for myself, so during my first week on the Emerald Coast I headed down the boardwalks and onto the sand. Turning east towards Destin, I walked down the beach, feet in the waves.
As I moved farther from the boardwalk, I noticed there were fewer people, but many more birds. The Laughing Gulls came first. Some stood on the sand, while others looked for food in the tide. They seemed relatively unperturbed by my presence, merely scuttling out of my way as I strode past them. Typical gulls, they were habituated to people.
Wilder birds were in my vicinity though, as I made out a few dark shapes literally running besides the waves. The first, a Willet, was relatively large, mostly gray, with a long bill made for probing the sand. Willets are fairly common up and down the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast, with populations in the mid-west and along the Pacific Coast as well. Though they breed in more northerly latitudes, it is clear that many had already returned to their wintering grounds, as a handful were hunting for prey in front of me. Unlike the seagulls they moved quickly away, and I made sure to give them a wide berth to avoid disturbance. They couldn’t have been too bothered; a few moments after I passed they were back at it again.
The sun was bright as I continued on, reflecting off the white sand and making me grateful for my sunglasses. I squinted ahead of me, trying to make out if the shapes I was seeing were rocks, shells, or actual birds.
One ghost-like shape seemed to be a small shorebird, but I would blink and it would disappear. I was in a spot where seaweed had washed up on shore, and against this contrast the Snowy Plover finally jumped out at me. Well camouflaged in their winter plumage, these tiny shorebirds are less than seven inches long and weigh barely two ounces. They are also a state listed threatened species, so I was thrilled to see a healthy bird on our beaches.
My last birds of the trip were some of the loudest. Royal Terns and their smaller counterparts, the Least Terns, flew and called up and down the beach in a constant search for food. Every so often one of them would perform an incredible aerial dive, plunging into the shallow waves and reemerging with a wriggling fish the size of a quarter. Impressive!