Madeira Beach will always have a special place in my heart.
It’s where my family has always spent Thanksgiving. And this year it’s where I met one of my new favorite birds. I walked on to the beach and couldn’t believe my eyes. Or my luck. Among the people walking on the beach and the sunbathers was a huge flock of birds.
Woah. I started going through the categories and labeling the birds in my mind: gulls, terns, shorebirds…wait, What. Is. That.
The Black Skimmer immediately short-circuited my brain with wonder and amazement and I fell in love. How hilarious is that face?
Especially when panting.
These birds are fascinating. They use their elongated lower mandible to skim the water surface feeling for fish. The lower mandible doesn’t move, instead the top clamps down when they make contact with a fish. Black Skimmers are also the only bird with large pupils that narrow vertically into cat-like slits. This protects their eyes during the day from glare and reflection, and when opened, allows them to efficiently feed at night.
Another charming characteristic of this creature is the way it rests. It lays on the sand and kind of looks like it’s dying.
See the one in the upper right? I avoided taking many pictures of the birds “resting” since they looked kind of sad and depressing. Little did I know that is their normal behavior.
I could have watched the skimmers all day, but there were many more birds to see! Some species I recognized, since I’d recently seen them on the Crescent City coast in California, but I was happy for the refresher.
And there were new birds in the mix, like the Sandwich Tern! The yellow-tipped black bill distinguishes this tern. Thalasseus sandvicensis, (sand-vi-SEN-sis) is named after the “Sandwich Islands” (Hawaii), though the bird does not occur there. Hm.
And the Royal Tern! Not to be confused with the Elegant Terns I saw on the Pacific coast.
One tern I thoroughly enjoyed watching catch fish was the Forster’s Tern. It soared gracefully over the water before diving like a missile, then *bam* it would break through the water surface, often returning with a fishy reward.
I saw a familiar gull, the Ring-billed Gull.
And a new gull, the Laughing Gull! Named after its laughing call, and according to the ABA Field Guide to Birds of Florida, (and other sources because I couldn’t believe it), it is the only gull that breeds in Florida. It’s pretty recognizable, even in winter plumage, with it’s white eye-crescents. I’d love to see them in their handsome breeding plumage.
One significant little brown bird in the mix I almost overlooked was the Red Knot. I didn’t notice it at the time, blending in with the other shorebirds, but there is one little knot laying in the sand between three Ruddy Turnstones.
After searching through my photos, I found another picture of the knot pretending to be a Sanderling (it’s there in the front-center). Though it’s bill is tucked, in this photo, the distinctive gray chevrons of its non-breeding plumage are more visible on its flanks.
Reading up on the Red Knot, I realize this inconspicuous bird deserves a bit of recognition (probably its own post, but I’ll go on a Red Knot tangent instead). First, this small sandpiper makes an impressive yearly migration of 9,300 miles! Secondly, the eastern population has plummeted since the 90s due to overharvesting of horseshoe crabs at one of its migration stopping points, Deleware Bay, New Jersey.
Much of the critical habitat was also damaged after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but restoration efforts thanks to the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey have improved the site and this November they even held a dedication of Oyster Reef to veterans in order to connect the community to the ecology. Partnerships like that will keep the Red Knots rich in horseshoe crab eggs. I’m hopeful anyways.
Off the Jersey Shore and back onto Madeira beach, I saw Willets! And my new catchphrase was born. Willet, or Won’t it? Hah.
Who knew a brown shorebird could be so photogenic. Gorgeous!
All in all, it was a great day at the beach! I spent the rest of my time sunbathing, working on my tan, and lying around. Just kidding.
Sgt. Skimmer says wear sunscreen! Stay hydrated! Get in the shade!
Tweets and chirps,