Life in my Bayway condominium in Florida is gladdened by a rare collection of avian friends.
Our meeting place is a small, secluded swimming pool next to the sea wall and a little dock, screened from the buildings by tall Norfolk pines and exotic palms. It is further enclosed by three hedged circles with lounge chairs for sunning. Most residents prefer socializing at the big club house pool, so this little sapphire is a private stopping place for our feathered friends - and me.
Princess of the assembly is a tall white egret, whom I have named Lily. She is lovely, and knows it, regally measuring her steps with head and neck held high. When a lizard is in sight, that long white neck becomes sinuous, weaving like a snake as she pursues her prey.
Lily knows no shame. When there are fishermen on the dock, she is there with her beguiling ways. Mostly the catch is little bait fish, which means delicious dining. She approaches coquettishly, not begging, but expecting the fisher folk to succumb to her charms. If the anglers are optimistic and have brought live bait, she is not above sidling over to the bait bucket, tipping off the lid, and stealing a tasty shrimp.
One day she arrived at the pool with a six-inch fish in her bill, too large to swallow. She dropped it in the water on the top step and proceeded to wash it, peck it, and try hard to swallow it, but it was no go for her narrow gullet. Finally, in a snit, she abandoned the mutilated fish. "Lily," I admonished her, "That's not nice. Take it away!" She chose to ignore me and flew off.
I admire Lily's poise and beauty, but she has not the charm of the great blue heron I call Buddy. This splendid long-necked, long-legged loner is my favorite poolside partner. Mornings he stalks up to drink, arching his neck to immerse his bill, straightening it to savor each drop trickling down.
Buddy accepts human presence as natural, and is unconcerned even with our gentle splashing. On occasion he steps down to the pool's overflow level. One very hot day he stepped down another step, resting his breast on the water, where he cooled himself, looking like some mutant gray swan.
Buddy can be a showman. He will spread his wings and pose in that position for many minutes. He is quite a clown - so thin he seeks shade in the trunk of a tall palm. He is also an acrobat - balancing on the tip of a swaying hedge, watching for bugs.
I'm sure he knows me. If I pass by as I walk along the seawall, he "gawks" to get my attention. One late afternoon, he came running to the pool. "To see me!" I thought with joy. Oh my foolish conceit! He stopped just long enough to sip and then was off for the hamburger bits supplied by a neighbor.
I must admit, our conversation is one-sided. I tell him how glad I am to see him, how handsome he is. One day I dared to ask him: "Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?"
For a long moment he surveyed me, eye to eye. "Bad manners," he seemed to say, and turned abruptly. "Gawk," he croaked as he flapped off. "Goodbye."
Then there are the troops, my name for a dozen or more white ibises. It's fun to watch them scrabble in the grass with their long curved red bills, all moving together, like a tide.
And, of course, the wary pelicans. It's a game to see how close we can get as they sun on a dock post. We talk to them soothingly, slowly edging nearer and nearer.
But always, there's a limit, and off they fly.
They'll be back, all of them - these rare, wonderful creatures, to charm us, to delight us, over and over again.