Walking on the beach this morning, I thought for a minute I had stumbled into a Hollywood remake of the old Alfred Hitchcock picture, The Birds. No sign of Tippi Hedren, but the birds were gathered in the thousands. Pelicans, gulls and egrets made up the largest part, with willets and plovers not far behind. The front edge of the surf, as well as the shallows was seething with more birds than I have ever seen at one time, stretching for a mile or more down the beach.
Obviously, such numbers of birds could only mean that a vast shoal of fish was there in the shallows just off the beach. Not being very knowledgeable about the local fish, I’m unable to put a name to them, but walking a few steps into the surf, the birds scattered and I could make out what looked like small pinkish baitfish. Didn’t much like the loud hungry squawks and hard eyes of the hovering birds, so I retreated quickly from their feeding ground.
The photo at the top doesn’t quite capture the squalling confusion of birds, but look closely and you will see that all of them, without exception are facing outward in what is a southeasterly direction. The total alignment of so many birds on both land and water intrigued me, but then it occurred to me that they were all facing away from the wind, a natural almost instinctive alignment.
The birds occupied a large part of my time walking, but something else was halving my attention. I have a great liking for a large, dark brown tropical seed that washes up on Florida beaches, and this is the best time of year to find them. Always hoping to find one, maybe two more of these treasures, I often poke through the occasional clump of washed-up seaweed looking for their familiar shape. Today, among all the birds and seaweed I found two more burger bean seahearts to enhance my collection.
Seahearts are seeds carried to the ocean by freshwater streams and rivers, drifting on ocean currents, with many of them later washing up on faraway shores. These large round, slightly heart-shaped seeds are often called sea-beans and come from trees and vines that grow along tropical shores and rainforests all over the world. The seeds fall from their parent plant into waterways, such as the Amazon River, then drift through inlets to reach the ocean. They travel with ocean currents until they wash up on a beach perhaps thousands of miles from their origin. Seahearts are quite hard and buoyant, which helps them survive their long-distance voyage. They float because they have an internal air pocket trapped by a hard outer covering on the bean.
September and October are typically the most favorable times to find seahearts in Florida, where they are more commonly known as ‘hamburger beans.’ Along the eastern coast their presence on the beach is affected by a variety of conditions. Prevailing wind is important, with an east wind naturally blowing them westward toward Florida’s coast, where tides leave behind the drifting seeds tangled in seaweed. More often than not, seahearts are not the only thing caught up in the seaweed, but wash up along with driftwood, plastic bottles and caps, lumps of tar, and the occasional waterlogged sandal from Timbuktu. I didn’t know until recently, but this line of seaweed (and debris) at the tide line is called ‘wrack.’
The middle photo shows my small collection of seahearts, with a dime in the middle to give a sense of scale. The bottom photo is a cross section of the seaheart showing the air pocket that gives it buoyancy.