Chasing Bar-tailed

There’s an undeniable intrigue when chasing rarities from across the globe. This time I was hoping for a shorebird off course from its typical New Zealand to Alaska migration called a Bar-tailed Godwit. Thanks to unusual weather patterns, a handful had shown up on the Oregon coast this spring.

I timed my trip to arrive in the coastal hills at sunrise to listen for Mountain Quail.

Since I was at the right place and the right time, I heard this life bird’s call pretty easily. A pair was calling back and forth across the valley. But no visuals this time, and I didn’t have much time to spend looking. Next time, quail.

I kept focus and made it to Lost Creek State Park while it was still early. I felt both relief and excitement when I saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

But it wasn’t. The Bar-tailed had been seen in mixed shorebird flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwit and those were both here.

Down-turned bill = Whimbrel

Upturned bill = Marbled Godwit

This godwit gave me pause. I realized then that I’d never seen Marbled Godwits in breeding plumage. More buffy-brown cinnamon colored, with barring on the chest, and an orange-ish coloring at the base of the bill (signalling increased hormonal levels). I had only seen them in non-breeding plumage with a pink base to the bill.

There were also some birds with intermediate colors.

This was getting more complicated. I had done my homework before arriving of course, Bar-tailed Godwits differ from Marbled in that they are slightly smaller, with a slightly shorter bill, and they lack the cinnamon underwing colors. They are slightly more reddish in breeding plumage and grayer in non-breeding. I began to doubt I’d recognize these slight differences.

So I looked at peeps instead. Hey, look! Western Sandpipers!

Bath time!

Dunlin in breeding plumage, look at that black belly!

Sanderlings! That one on the right is in breeding plumage (mottled, rufous head and neck).

And the best distraction. Semi-palmated Plover.

You’re cute, even when you’re digging in the sand.

That helped. I walked back to the car ready to try another location. As I was returning, a group of birders passed by and we exchanged information. They too were looking for godwits and hadn’t seen any Bar-tailed yet. At least I hadn’t missed anything.

I pulled over at another beach spot, and found only plovers and Whimbrels. The next stop was Newport’s South Jetty where I found no Whimbrels or godwits, but I did catch a distant glimpse of a black ghost. A Pacific Loon in breeding plumage!

Note to self: spend more time with shorebirds in breeding plumage. They’re beautiful.

It was late afternoon by now and I had time for just one more stop. Since it was close, and I’d never been there, I decided on Yaquina Bay State Recreation Area just across from South Jetty.

I approached the beach and saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

OMG, this was it! I spotted one of the banded birds in my binoculars. Some reports had been of birds with multiple blue and white bands on their legs, part of a bird-banding program in New Zealand, and positively identifying them as Bar-tailed Godwits. It was the best-case scenerio BTGO to find.

But before I could snap a photo, a woman approached me, asking about the birds. She asked what the birds with the long bills were, “are they Long-billed Dowitchers?” Normally, I appreciate people’s interest in birds when I’m out, but this was terrible timing. But I explained what they were anyways. She thanked me, then proceeded to walk right towards the flock, spooking them all.

Seriously? I had told her about the rarity too. I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t have time to sulk, because I had to jog down the beach to keep up with the moving flock. Eventually, success!

Look at all the jewelry on that New Zealand bird! What a huge relief. And the stranger thing was, besides that rude woman, I was the only one on the beach. No other birders. I posted the sighting on OBOL and enjoyed my time. I’d actually hit the jackpot of shorebirds at this spot.

There were Black-bellied Plovers in breeding plumage.

I almost dropped my binoculars.

A Ruddy Turnstone.

And a pair of Brant casually on the shore.

Whimbrels, plovers, godwits, sanderlings, it was hard to keep up!

The tide came in further, many birds moved up to the jetty rocks to sleep in the warm afternoon sun. I regained and lost site of the Bar-tailed again, grateful for the time I had.

X marks the spot, I’d found the treasure!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Godwit Days Part IV: The Finale

What better way to end Godwit Days than with a Shorebird Spectacle at the marsh?

Shorebirds

Not a bad idea. Led by David Fix, author of Birds of Northern California, the spectacle trip started at the mudflats at Humboldt Bay. Unfortunately, the tide didn’t cooperate and most of the birds were pretty far in the distance.

Poor attempt at digiscoping

Poor attempt at digiscoping

The view was challenging especially for someone with limited shorebird experience, but I managed to at least identify a few Black-bellied Plovers in the faraway mix.

Black-bellied Plover

We moved to the nearby marsh for closer shorebird views.

Two godwits and a willet

Two godwits and a willet

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

And Semipalmated Plovers were a nice surprise! I wish I had gotten closer views, they’re so freakin cute.

Semipalmated Plover

I’m learning shorebirds, slowly but surely. Okay, way more slowly than anything. Their subtleties are overwhelming. I thought if I left this trip learning one new thing, I’d be happy.

So, the thing I picked up was that as with many birds, a trick to distinguishing Long-billed vs Short-billed Dowitchers, is with their distinctive calls. Long-billed has a short flight call (high-pitched keek), Short-billed has a long flight call (mellow tu tu tu). Here’s a video from the trip of those calls in action:

Whew, that’s tough. Taking it one peep at a time.

After my last official Godwit Days trip, Tomas and I had an entire afternoon free and we made the most of it. We first went to the North Jetty to look for Black Turnstones. We picked them out easily. Pretty bird.

Black Turnstone

We crossed Humboldt Bay to King Salmon and watched Pelagic Cormorant, Brant, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser feed in the bay.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

We also watched crabs battle on the rocks. Just as fun as you think.

Krabby Patty

Krabby Patty

It was around this time that I realized I hadn’t seen a Wrentit yet. It was one target speices I’d hoped to see while in California. So, we left to try our luck at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

On the drive there I read up on the bird, “common but difficult to see in dense brushy habitats,” the song an accelerating “bouncing ball.” I was excited to meet this bird. We turned onto the visitor center access road, drove slowly with the windows rolled down, and almost immediately, as if we’d somehow summoned the bird, we heard the bouncing ball!

Named appropriately, this bird looks like a mashup of a wren and a bushtit. And it’s just as energetic as both. I was stoked when I finally got a look at this sneaky little bird.

Wrentit

Wrentit

Mission accomplished.

The rest of our mid-day walk consisted of Song Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Black Phoebe, and I even got a quick look at a Merlin!

Merlin

A little later, I mentioned to Tomas that I hadn’t seen a hummingbird yet on this trip. To which he replied, you mean like that one there? And pointed to an Anna’s Hummingbird right next to us.

Anna's Hummingbird

Well, hello there

Poof, just like that. Hummingbird, check!

We walked and birded until the blazing heat forced us to retreat back to the local brewery where we toasted to all the fun times we had exploring Arcata. Cheers to a fantastic trip! Spotted owlSibley, Wrentit!…and of course godwits!

godwit family2

How cute is that?

Tweets and chirps!

Audrey

Madeira Beach, Florida

Madeira Beach will always have a special place in my heart.

Madeira Beach

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.

Mixed waterbirds

Skimmers and Willets

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?

Black Skimmer

Especially when panting.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

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.

Black Skimmer

Another charming characteristic of this creature is the way it rests. It lays on the sand and kind of looks like it’s dying.

Black Skimmer

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.

Black Skimmer

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.

Sandwich Tern

And the Royal Tern! Not to be confused with the Elegant Terns I saw on the Pacific coast.

Royal Tern

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.

Forster's Tern

I saw a familiar gull, the Ring-billed Gull. 

Ring-billed Gull

Helloooo ladies

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.

Laughing Gull

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.

Shorebirds

Red Knot

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.

Red Knot

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.

Willet

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.

Black Skimmer

Sgt. Skimmer says wear sunscreen! Stay hydrated! Get in the shade!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey