Roseate Spoonbill

By Clyde Bruffee Hager

Roseate Spoonbill

The place I grew up, Longboat Key, Florida, was idyllic. My father, John Bruffee, was a carpenter and we, including my mother and two older brothers, were not wealthy. But that changed when he died. I was 3 years old and my mother remarried a year later. Let’s just say that William Morris Hager III was well off enough to adopt three boys, have two more kids, and live quite comfortably, much better than we did before.

Here’s a picture of Millar Bay taken from the resort that was a few houses down the street from us. That was our view as well, though our house was three feet above sea level, so the angle from our view was quite lower.

Millar Bay and Sister Keys

It doesn’t matter much where you were raised or how much money you had when it comes to happiness. Your vibe can be anywhere on the map. Willie, my stepfather, was an alcoholic, though a quiet one who, in retrospect, was kind and generous. Mom was “frugal”, a product of the Great Depression, and seemed to always be worrying about money. I could have felt comfortably wealthy, full of gratitude, and happy. But I didn’t. I always felt like I had to be clutching pennies. I was also full of fear and holding down a boiling rage of unknown origin that still hasn’t fully escaped.

One late afternoon in my early teens, I was seething with anger over something and had to get out of the house. Luckily, that was easy to do and I did it often. Our house was right on Millar Bay and we had a variety of small boats. My Irish twin Bill and I bought a kayak, at least that’s what the seller called it. It was homemade, canvas stretched over a wood frame and coated with fiberglass. Open cockpit, it seated the two of us but was at most only three inches above the water on each side. We took it under the bridge into the Gulf of Mexico once and on the way back we were waved over to the shore by a local cop who had stopped on the bridge. He told us never to do that again. He didn’t mention that shark fishing was popular there but we knew that already.

Late afternoons are still a bad, downer time of day for me, I don’t know why. This day was no different, so I slide the kayak into the water and I take my anger out on the paddle. It doesn’t take long to cross Millar Bay the half mile to the Sister Keys. Most of the bay is shallow, only a few feet at high tide and at low tide “the flats” expose a complex ecosystem of shellfish. Slowly, the healing nature of the large body of water begins to shift my mood. 

The Sister Keys are uninhabited strips of land covered with mangroves, sea grapes and other plants that somehow survive on and in the salt water. I cross the Intracoastal Waterway channel and let my momentum take me into the shallow water, just offshore to avoid the bugs. One face-to-face encounter with a banana spider is enough for me.

The sun is setting and the air is completely calm. Not far away, toward the sunset, I see a flock of pink. Paddling quietly, I creep up on them. Because of a bird-watching group that I was in, I know what they are. Roseate spoonbills were almost completely eliminated when appearances of their feathers on women’s hats became popular. Once hunting was banned they survived, but sightings are rare even in this natural habitat.

The roseate spoonbill is a wading bird with long legs. Their bills are wider at the end and rounded. Most wading birds have sharp pointed bills for spearing fish and breaking scallop shells. The spoonbills gather tiny bits of life as they move their heads slowly back and forth like a beachcomber with a metal detector. They aren’t a solid pink like a flamingo. Their head, neck and back are almost pure white. There is a splash of deep pink across the wing. The rest are shades of iridescent pink.

Roseate Spoonbills

Friendly cumulus clouds sit motionless above the setting sun. Pastel orange and blue paint their edges. The water is like glass. The image below the horizon is a mirror of the image above. I sit in reverie as time stops, the image of beauty emblazoned into my memory forever. Suddenly, my presence is detected and the flock becomes airborne. A blast of pink crosses in front of me. “Thank you”, I whisper.

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