By Robert Brown
Itís a half-hour before sunrise but the sky is brightening in the east and thereís already a cacophony of bird calls filling the still air. Some of the birds are familiar to me. The coots are making their familiar grunting and squawking calls, and I recognize the call of the American goldfinch although itís a drab olive colour that makes it almost invisible in mid-winter in Florida. From across the lake two noisy Sandhill Cranes come in for a landing. They start their mating dance just as the sun is rising. Their loud trumpeting sound is grating to the ear.
Most of the birds are new to me. A flock of Boat-tailed Grackles fill the branches of a nearby avocado tree. Thereís only one male and his harem of females. Heís a busy fellow - strutting, puffing up his chest, spreading his tail, and calling out a throaty jeeb jeeb jeeb. As the sun creeps higher the exotic tropical birds start to appear. A small flock of Roseate Spoonbills fly over providing a brief flash of pink as their wings catch the sunlight. Soon a dozen White Ibis swoop in and land at the waterís edge. They immediately start poking their long curved bills into the water as they wade jerkily along the shoreline. I get out my bird book and try to identify the other visitors. A large white bird that looks like itís probably a Great Egret. Another large white and black bird that must be a Stork.
I take a sip of my very strong Bustelo cafť espresso and soak up the moment. I can make out the shape of an alligatorís head near the shore. I wonder if itís the same one that bit my bobber while I was fishing yesterday. He didnít like it when I tried to reel him in, coiling like a huge spring and thrashing in the water as he dove away.
Throughout the day various birds fly over, some stopping, some just passing by. White Pelicans glide elegantly in the distance, circling upward as they encounter a thermal. A small flock of Flamingos pass immediately overhead, pastel pink against the cerulean blue sky. The land breeze switches to a sea breeze as the day heats up. Soon turtles appear on the shore basking in the sun. A massive softshell turtle swims slowly by, its comical nose sticking out of the water.
The largemouth bass are biting this afternoon but my quarry is a fish the locals call Ďspeckí. Itís a kind of crappy (pronounced croppy here) with a common name speckled perch which is shortened to speck. They ever-so-gently steal the minnow off my hook but I manage to catch one so at least I now know what they look like.
As the sun moves toward the western sky, dropping towards the horizon, the Anhingas come in from fishing. They hunt underwater with only their long neck coming above water level when they need to breathe. Their wings have no waterproofing so they get soaked completely, allowing them to dive deeply. Every evening they arrive in our backyard, make a Booby-type landing on a branch, almost fall several times, then stand up tall, hold their wings out to dry, and stay in that position until another Anhinga comes along and wants their perch. They are so regular in their arrival that we call is Anhinga Time and know that we can pour a glass of wine or open a cold beer. Tonight we have a special libation. At some point many years ago Mike received a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey as a gift and pushed it unopened to the back of his cabinet. He didnít realize what a rare treat he had until I told him a story about tasting it one time in Kentucky. We carefully pour a wee dram of the golden liquid into tiny glasses and toast the evening.
The nose is quite remarkable Ė like a mixture of caramel and vanilla with an overtone of sweet corn. The first sip is both fiery and fruity. The middle is leather and oak and the finish is long, spicy, and tannic. A remarkable whisky. Mike tells me that he tried to buy another bottle at a local store and was told that they were holding a lottery. Their allotment for the year was very small, so they held a lottery to decide who would be allowed the opportunity to buy a bottle. Mike carefully replaces his valuable bottle to the back of his cabinet.
The sun is gone now but the sky is brilliant with oranges, reds, pinks, and purples. As the colours fade the birds slowly stop their calling and the night falls silent. And very, very dark.
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