Amelia Island

(This column first appeared in the March 2, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Amelia Island anchors the northeast corner of Florida. Just to the north across the mouth of the St. Marys River is Cumberland Island in Georgia. The Intracoastal Waterway divides this barrier island from the Florida mainland and to the east is the broad Atlantic. On a bleak gray morning recently I walked a few miles along that ocean shore.

    I left spring like conditions in Buffalo only to find winter still in charge in Florida. Long johns would have served this outing as the temperature climbed only to the mid-40s. A stiff 20 knot northeast wind pushed huge rollers onto the beach and sent scuds of foam skidding over the sand until friction wore them out. It looked as though someone had put too much soap in the washing machine.

    Not another soul walked the beach: my host, Earl Colborn, told me that only a "snowbird" (Northerner) would venture out in this weather. But I had hardly reached the water's edge when I came upon some birds arrayed in a diamond formation, all facing me, shoulders into the wind. They stood at ease like soldiers waiting for their parade to begin. In the flock were ring-billed and laughing gulls and Forster's terns, and in the rear were two royal terns, their grizzled appearance designating them the old campaigners of this squad. Out in front stood a single willet. I expected to see him call his group to attention and march them off down the beach. When they failed to move on, I walked around the formation, passing within a few feet from them, completely ignored.

    Beyond these birds was a lonely stretch and my thoughts turned to the remarkable history of the island. The Timucuan Indians lived here until the mid-1500s. Then followed a succession of title holders: French, Spanish, English, Spanish again, two local groups and a Mexican pirate until finally in 1821 Spain ceded Florida to the United States. Even that did not end the series as the Confederacy took the island for two years during the Civil War. Somehow local historians turn that litany into a claim that eight flags have stood over their island.

    Just as my mind was conjuring up explorers with silver breastplates approaching through the beach grass the appearance of a single bird a hundred yards offshore broke into my reverie. This was the species I was looking for -- a gannett. A gannett is a large gull-like bird, its white body set off by black wing primaries, its head-down posture and narrow wings reminiscent of the Concorde SST. As I watched it sail in the wind currents about 50 feet above the water, the big bird suddenly put on a show for me. It folded its wings and dropped straight down. Just before it reached the waves it trailed its wings back so that it entered the water like a spear. Within seconds it resurfaced with a fish in its bill, somewhat awkwardly rose off a wave top and continued its flight north. I was so intent on this spectacle that I didn't realize that a wave had reached my feet and water was flooding my sneakers.

    The rest of the walk was anticlimactic. A few sanderlings and turnstones tiddled along the water's edge. Two dead birds, a brown pelican and a horned grebe, and many jellyfish had been washed in by the surf.

    By the time I returned to the path up from the beach, sand had drifted over my footprints. But in the beach grass tiny blossoms of innocence signaled that, despite this chilly morning, spring was indeed approaching.