Florida: Beach Birds

My family has timeshare at a condo at Madeira Beach and I returned this year to spend time with them and check out the birds. Two years ago I remembered a large flock of resting birds on the beach right in front of the condo that included Black Skimmers that totally blew my mind.

They were back!

I was so happy to revisit these charismatic birds.

Having two more years of birding under my belt, I felt I had a better grip on shorebirds, terns, and gulls. It felt really good to apply what I’ve learned as I scanned the flock, focused on field marks, and looked for the differences.

If your bill looks like it was dipped in mustard, you’re a Sandwich Tern.

If you’re balding except for those Bart Simpson spikes in the back, you’re a Royal Tern.

Banded!

I haven’t thought of anything clever for the Forster’s Tern, so if you’re a small tern leftover with a dark comma by the eye and orange legs you’re a Forster’s Tern.

Ring-billed Gulls were there.

As were effervescent Laughing Gulls.

And the first day I saw a rather large gull that stood out in the flock.

That dark back, light eye, the stern look. It was almost like a Herring Gull but the back was too dark. Hopeful, I looked up black-backed gulls and this one fits perfectly with Lesser Black-backed Gull. Identify-new-gull achievement unlocked!

Lesser Black-backed Gull headstand combo

The Lesser Black-backed Gull had a bully persona to go along with that stern look.

The terns weren’t as thrilled as I was to have it around.

To me the Lesser Black-backed Gull looks like a gull that’s been up all night drinking. He’s tired, cranky and means business.

The beach rewarded me with something different each day. Last time I found one Red Knot, this time I found a whole lot of knots.

I see you back there Black-bellied Plover

Late afternoon one day as I went for a swim with my mom and aunt in the gulf, almost as soon as I entered the water (and acclimated to the chilly water temp) I looked up high in the sky and thought I recognized the shape of a Magnificent Frigatebird. I’d hoped to see one on the trip, but this was terrible timing!

Not wanting to miss the photo opp I awkwardly splashed out of the water, ran all the way back up to the room grabbed my camera, and hurried back to the beach to snap a few pics. Then it was back to the room to drop off the camera, back to the beach and into the waters again to relax and swim. It was totally worth it.

Confirmed

It wasn’t until later that I noticed even more frigatebirds in the sky.

First there was one, then a few, and suddenly a dozen. Later, while my mom and I visited the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary down the street I looked up and counted 28! I managed to get 20 in one photo. Crazy. It was some kind of frigatebird meetup (my aunt called them “friggin birds” by then).

Back to the Seabird Sanctuary (an awesome place!), bonus points to anyone who can identify this handsome gull housed there.

Towards the end of the week, while scanning terns I noticed an imposter next to the Forster’s Tern. The Sandwich Tern noticed too.

That dark spot next to the eye is incomplete, then I noticed the leg color was different.

That’s a nice gull from home! A Bonaparte’s Gull. I found a handful more the next day.

On the last day at the condo, I walked out to check the birds for a final time, and as I scanned through, I noticed a gold eye in the mix.

Oh yes, American Oystercatcher! My prior sightings of this species have always been so far away so it was nice to finally appreciate a close-up view of this one. Hey, there.

And the last evening on the beach the final show was put on by Black Skimmers skimming.

I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the best of beach times.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Laughing at the Coast

Last weekend I had a roller coaster of a birding trip. But that’s to be expected when chasing rarities. There were at least seven rare birds reported near Newport (Say’s Phoebe, Solitary Sandpiper, Northern Mockingbird, Marbled Godwit, Nashville Warbler (early), Palm Warbler, and Laughing Gull). Laughing Gull?! Who brought back the Texas souvenir?

It wasn’t me. But I have missed the southern birds so I figured why not reunite with at least one? If I could find a few other rarities it would make the long drive worth it. I set off. And was almost immediately detoured by some intriguing-looking geese.

When you see a small group of geese on the side of the road you pull over. But upon closer examination, these turned out to be Domestic Geese.

According to Cornell what makes these different from Snow or Ross’s Geese: “typically domestic geese have orange bills and feet, lack the black wing feathers, and have shape differences such as heavy bottoms and an ungainly waddle.” I didn’t see their legs or their waddle, but the lack of black wing feathers was a tell-tale sign not to get excited.

With only one day to spend at the coast, I didn’t have time to stop for domestic incidentals. Eventually I made it to South Beach State Park the last reported location of the Laughing Gull where luckily I bumped into Wayne Hoffman, a local birder who pointed me in the right direction. Towards the teeny dots in the distance.

This is when it’s extra hard to stay on track and pass up views of Northern Harriers carrying nesting materials, exotic-sounding Yellow-rumped Warblers, fly-by Caspian Terns, and flocks of Savannah Sparrows among the driftwood. Stay on target.

So many pretty distractions

Three stream crossings, two miles, and two soaked feet later, a pair of birders passed me from the opposite direction carrying a scope. They gave me the thumbs up and I knew it was all okay. Not long after, the gull flew by.

Laughing Gull! Oregon’s 4th record! And this one has one leg making it extra special.

I watched for a while as it flew and hopped around the Mew Gulls, and then it ate an undetermined ocean object, before settling down at the shore with a ridiculously large crop.

I was worried about the bulge, but the gull has been reported since then, so all is well digested. I left the gull and trekked back across the streams and the two miles back to the car. Later I learned the Northern Mockingbird was located at the first stream crossing. Strike one. That’ll teach me to walk by distractions.

From here I drove the short distance to the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary nature trail where the reported Palm Warbler has regularly wintered. This bird (which I associate most with Florida neighborhoods) was one I was most excited to see. Along the trail I passed Tree Swallows, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned Warblers, Savannah Sparrows and the most handsome Lincoln Sparrow.

Then I spotted two birders at the bird blind. I asked if they’d happened to see a Palm Warbler. The woman exclaimed they’d just seen one! And I’d just missed it. She said “you have to see my pictures” and she “didn’t even realize what it was” and “isn’t that disgusting?” Her words, not mine. I asked which way the bird flew then politely looked at her photos.

I really wanted to be happy for her and after some snacks and time I genuinely was. Not finding the Palm Warbler was a disappointment, but I was a 5 min drive from the South Jetty where a second Palm Warbler had been seen as well as all the other rarities. But I didn’t find any of those this time either.

If the goal had been to find Golden-crowned Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, a Wrentit, gobs of Savannah Sparrows and a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage then I was highly successful.

I think the best sighting here may have been a fly-by Pigeon Guillemot.

It was getting late. But not late enough to check the estuary trail again for the warbler. I walked along the trail maybe 20 feet when I saw some fluttering by a big ugly building.

No way. There was the warbler flying around the backside of the pipes on the building. Not perched prettily on driftwood, but at least it was a science center and not Walmart?

This bird is pro-science.

So pretty! Glad I went back to check on it again. I was running short on time and I could have ended the day here, but the Salishan Nature Trail where a Nashville Warbler was sighted was mostly on the way home. Why not make a quick stop for a look?

An hour and a half of quick looking later I finally saw the Nashville, but so briefly that I didn’t even count it. I got much better looks of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Common Yellowthroat.

And a Rufous Hummingbird!

M’lady Rufous. One of my favorites.

And just as I was leaving I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk also on a bird hunt.

I wished I had more time. Lesson learned, one day is not enough to find all the rare birds on the coast. I started the three hour drive home, and along the way, next to a field in Grand Ronde I spotted an intriguing white bird hovering over a field.

White-tailed Kite! When you see a White-tailed Kite you pull over. I’ve only seen one other WTKI in Oregon and I had to work hard for it. This one was a treat. I watched from the side of the road as it hunted.

It eventually caught a rodent and then flew off into the distance. I’d come a long way from those Domestic Geese. So many highs so many lows. Such is the case when chasing rarities. Hilariously good times!

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