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“Spoonbills?” the guard at Ding Darling said. “Someone saw one down this trail about a half-hour ago.”
So off we went, on foot, down the Indigo Trail, which runs along the top of a dike through mangrove forest and past gumbo-limbo trees. The no-see-ums were fierce, and I slapped at my arms as we walked. An anhinga glided through the dark water, only its slender neck and head showing. (This is why they’re known as “snake birds.”) It hopped up onto a branch and spread its black-and-white wings to dry. (It cannot fly when its wings are wet.) A little farther up the trail, we spotted his mate, a beautiful female with a gold head and throat.
“You know,” I said. “We might not see the wonderful thing that we set out to see, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen an awful lot of other really wonderful things. I mean, pelicans! And anhingas! And a gopher tortoise! And two alligators! Don’t let my obsession with spoonbills make me think this trip was a failure.”
“Good point,” said Joey.
We walked back to the car. The gates closed at sundown, and the sun was already low; I figured we had one, maybe two more chances to drive the 4-mile gravel road. At the first spot of open water, dozens of white pelicans and egrets, a couple of great-blue herons, and a million willets and sandpipers gathered on a sandbar. A little blue heron strutted on the beach right next to us, unafraid. We asked a fisherman if he had seen any spoonbills. “Roseate spoonbills?” he said. “Yeah, they were here a little while ago, out there with the pelicans. Maybe an hour ago. Maybe less. You just missed them.”
I did not swear, not out loud. We drove to the next open spot, where eight or 10 people hunched over spotting scopes and cameras on tripods. Nothing in the water but pelicans, egrets and herons. The late-afternoon light was a rich gold, and the birds were beautiful, but I was disappointed. “Why don’t we drive through one more time?” said Joey. “The spoonbills might come in.”
“They’re not going to come in,” I grumbled, but we drove out the exit and then looped back down the main road to the entrance, reaching the guard shack just five minutes before the gates closed. The guard looked bemused. “Just how fast were you going?” she asked. “Speed limit’s 15. Don’t let the ranger catch you speeding.”
Chastened, I crawled to the spot where the fishermen had been, but by now they were gone. The sun was gone, too, leaving the sky and water nearly colorless, the vivid gold drained away. I took a few halfhearted pictures and we drove on. At the next spot, all of the people had packed up their spotting scopes and gone home. The pelicans huddled together, apparently asleep.
“Well, that’s that,” I said.
After dinner, Joey and I walked down to the beach under a full moon. The stars were bright, the only sound the rolling surf and the warm breeze. We walked for an hour along the hard sand. Lights glowed from the houses and cottages that faced the water, but the wide expanse of beach was empty of people.
Back at the cottage, I loaded my pictures into the computer to see what I had, deleting the blurry ones, straightening the crooked ones. At the last picture, the last one I took in Ding Darling, I cropped out excess sky and water and blew up the birds to see them more clearly. A row of sandpipers, bookended by a white pelican on either side. A heron off to the right. Something — an egret? — flying in. But what was that — right in the middle? A big bird, standing on one leg, rounder than the herons and egrets. It was — it was — pink.
“Joey!” I said. “Look at this! We did see a spoonbill after all!”
Mission accomplished. Time to hit the beach.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books.