Summer Lake

Once inside Summer Lake Wildlife Area it was on. I had no responsibilities or schedule to keep, my only job was to look at birds and I looked at as many as I could. It was exciting and overwhelming all at once. This must be what vacation feels like?

The refuge itself is set up much like Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge with an (8.3 mile) auto tour loop. There’s places to park and walk along the dikes, and a few camping areas on the refuge. Here’s a map. The best time to visit is spring (Mar-Jul), the auto route is closed during hunting season (Oct-Jan). The weather can be crazy, thunderstorms, hail, wind. And there’s a few bugs.

But it’s worth it because there are birds. So many birds. At headquarters there were Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, Say’s Phoebe, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Kingbird and House Sparrow. Sometimes lined up all in one place.

Looking at hummingbird feeders next to headquarters I was rewarded with the only hummingbirds of the whole trip, Black-chinned Hummingbird. But I saw more Bullock’s Orioles at the feeders than hummers.

The real stars of this refuge are the long-legged kind.

American Avocet

White-faced Ibis

Black-necked Stilt

And Willets perched on shrubs! Calling “pill-will-willet!”

I probably went around the loop a dozen times (at least) and each time I’d see something different or unique. Some of the more unusual sightings included this trio of Franklin’s Gulls seen only on the first night.

And the same night a Bald Eagle flew over a marsh in the distance creating an amazing White-faced Ibis chaos cloud.

While scoping out camping options just before a storm, I noticed a small patch of willows full of warblers, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and a MacGuillivray’s Warbler that made a special appearance.

There are Caspian and Forster’s Terns, California and Ring-billed Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorant nesting colonies here.

Did I mention there were Snowy Plovers?

I spent so much time on the refuge I was able to help out the Owl Be Damned Birdathon team (the world’s greatest women’s birding team) that happened to visit while I was there.

Together we looked at Great Horned Owls, including owlets!

A Western Grebe with a pile of babies on its back that I only got terrible photos of. And I was also able to share with them a Short-eared Owl that was one of the best surprises.

I camped on the refuge two nights, and both times I was the only person at the site. One night was so stormy and windy I made the executive decision to move into a barn.

It helped block the wind, and gave me a nice wake-up call to a pair of Great Horned Owls hooting so that was nice.

Better than coffee

Such an amazing place! Something fun around every corner.

Thank you for visiting Summer Lake, please come again.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

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

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