The beach is full of stories. Maybe the story is the graceful pelican, flying along the surf’s edge in search of fish. Perhaps there’s a nest of hungry chicks nearby, waiting for breakfast. Or perhaps this is a lone bird with a long and complex history.

Maybe the story is the young girl who just caught the largest fish of her life, a wide-mouth ocean monster called a snook.

Maybe the story is the couple volunteering with the SCCF, walking the beach each morning of nesting season for the past 12 years, looking for turtle tracks. I talked with them about the two false crawls they’d found that morning, the signs they see that help them identify the turtle as a loggerhead, and their hope that the turtles may once again this year set a new record. “If we can avoid any big storms,” one volunteer says, “It’s all about hatchlings, not nests.”

Maybe it’s a tiny story, like the auger snail I observed.

Every day, every moment, the beach changes. Tides and waves sculpt the sand. Sandbars develop and disappear. This morning I watched water pouring over a lip of sand and into a tide pool, creating a miniature Niagara that would last for less than half an hour, then disappear.

In one of these tidal pools, I saw long, winding tracks.

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Following these tracks, I came to an end, and at that end I found a perfect little auger snail. She had been sculpting the seascape, searching for food and leaving a record of her journey. I snapped a blurry picture and placed her back where she belonged.

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But the story I want to tell today is about my friend the reddish egret.

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I met this charismatic bird just at sunrise. We were both standing in a tide pool. At first I assumed the bird, because of its dark color, must be a heron.

Next, the oddest thing happened. As the sunrise appeared behind me, the bird started doing a crazy dance. You can see a little bit of it here:

What in the world was this bird doing?

I got out my handy-dandy beach guide book (Florida’s Living Beaches by Blair and Dawn Witherington) and found that the bird wasn’t a heron at all, but instead was a reddish egret. Even more exciting, “(r)eddish egrets,” the Witheringtons tell me, “run in circles and flail their wings to herd fish.” Further research informed me that the wing spreading creates shade, into which small fish swim for cover. The egret then has easy pickings. What an amazing adaptation, one that I was able to observe first-hand as the sun rose over another perfect day on Sanibel.

The birds here are endlessly fascinating, from the ospreys and pelicans pulling fish from the waves to the sanderlings and ibises probing the edge of the surf for food to the crows and gulls foraging through the detritus in the wrack line. But when you consider how these birds got here, they become even more incredible.

Birds first appeared from dinosaur ancestors more than 150 million years ago. But evolution never happens in sudden jumps. There was never a dinosaur mother that gave birth to a bird offspring. If you could see the actual sequence of events, generation after generation, you’d see a continuous line of tiny, almost imperceptible changes from dinosaur to bird. In this sense, birds are dinosaurs, living today in virtually every ecosystem on Earth (including, of course, the beach). Those behaviors of the reddish egret you can see in the video above run in a direct line, from the hatchling in its nest through all its ancestors until you come to a creature that that looks like this:

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Though the birds are just one branch of the dinosaur tree, they form a massive branch – there are more bird species on Earth today than mammal, reptile, or amphibian species, and the total number of birds, around 300 billion, also outnumbers the other four-limbed vertebrates. Among all vertebrates, only fish have done better than the birds. And as Sanibel mornings show, these modern-day dinosaurs are doing their best to even that score.

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