Semipalmated Plover: Seashore Sunday

I woke up this morning (Sunday) and realized that I didn’t post a Seashore Saturday! I lost track of what day it was. So here’s another Seashore Sunday. This week’s bird is one that I’ve been seeing a lot of lately: the Semipalmated Plover. I saw this bird on my recent trips to Cape May and Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)

Description:

Semipalmated Plovers are about 7.25 in length. They have brown upperparts, white underparts, and orange legs. They have a distinctive dark breast band, as well as dark cheeks. The base of their bill is orange while the bill tip is black. They are smaller than the similar-looking Killdeer, who have a double breast band.

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Adult Semipalmated Plover (Image by Mike Lentz via allaboutbirds.org)

Range:

Breeding (Summer): Alaska and Northern Canada; Migration: Canada, throughout United States; Winter: Pacific, Atlantic, and gulf Coasts, Caribbean Islands, and coast of South America

Habitat:

Shores, sandy beaches, mudflats, lake shores. Prefers open habitats and avoids flats with too much marsh vegetation

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In flight (Image by Mike Danzenbaker via avesphoto.com)

Diet:

Mainly insects, but also marine worms and crustaceans. Semipalmated Plovers forage by running in short spurts and pecking the ground when they spot food. Sometimes they shuffle their foot in the ground to startle prey into moving.

Breeding and Nesting:

To attract a mate in the air, males will flying in circles using slow wingbeats over their territories while calling. Another technique is to fluff his feathers, spread his tail and wings, crouch down, and call excitedly. Semipalmated Plovers build the nest on bare gravel or sand and line it with natural materials.

Both sexes incubate usually 4 eggs for 23-25 days. The downy young leave the nest shortly after hatching and feed themselves while being watched by the parents. Young plovers’ first flight occur between 23-31 days after hatching.

Sounds:

Two-note whistle: tu-wee!

Fun Facts:

  • “Semipalmated” refers to the fact that they have partial webbing in between their toes.
  • Semipalmated Plovers are the most numerous of the small plovers.
  • Like the Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers use the “broken-wing display”, where they pretend to be injured to lure predators away from their chicks.
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Cape May!

We finally did it! Dave and I took a trip to Cape May, NJ to go birding.

Birding is a big deal in Cape May. New Jersey is part of what is called the Atlantic Flyway, which is a migration route use by birds on the Atlantic Coast. There are 4 flyways in the United States; the other 3 are Pacific, Central, and Mississippi. Due to its location, Cape May experiences hundreds of thousands of birds during spring and fall migrations. New Jersey Audubon headquarters and the Cape May Bird Observatory are stationed here, and there are tons of “birding hotspots”. Cape May is the host of The World Series of Birding and two annual migration festivals (fall and spring). It’s a birder’s paradise. People flock (pun intended) to Cape May for birds. Dave and I visited 3 different locations .

Our first stop was Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.We were right in time to watch the Cape May-Lewes Ferry take off, which shuttles people from New Jersey to Delaware. It was a pretty quiet day at the beach. We spotted some gulls, terns, and cormorants flying across the bay. On the beach was a flock of Sanderlings with some Semipalmated Plovers mixed in. It’s fun to watch them scurrying around the sand trying to avoid the waves. There was a trail that went through the forest nearby, but we didn’t hike long since it was overgrown.

Our second stop was the Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood Branch. There are two branches of the CMBO, but this one was a store. You can pretty much find any birding supply or accessory there: binoculars, spotting scopes, books, feeders, nest boxes, clothing, and artwork. The staff was knowledgeable about great birding locations and they were watching the Cornell Lab’s Texas Hummers. I ended up buying myself a print by artist David Kiehm of a Pileated Woopecker (longtime readers know about my love for Pileateds) called “Lunch Counter”. You can check out his amazing artwork at Dead Drift Studio at this link.

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“Lunch Counter” by David Kiehm

Our last stop of the day was South Cape May Meadow, which is run by The Nature Conservancy. The trails take you through marsh meadows with small ponds interspersed and leads to the beach. The first section of the trail featured Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Tree Swallows, and some Ospreys. The Mute Swans were very close to us and beautiful to watch.

Farther down the trail we came to a second pond. There were more Mute Swans, but then we had some surprises. A Pied-billed Grebe was popping in an out of the water. Then four American Oystercatchers arrived. I was thrilled to see them. They are one of my favorites, and I haven’t seen them since June. A small flock of Snowy Egrets arrived. One of them continued to hover and it seems like he wasn’t sure where to land. He was quite a sight to watch. I was glad that I was able to get some clear pictures of him.

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A  Hovering Snowy (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds we saw at this pond were Black Skimmers, more Osprey, Glossy Ibis, and Seimpalmated Sandpipers. We also had a great view of the Cape May Lighthouse, which is at a park down the street. There were more trails to explore, but unfortunately we had to head home at one point  since we live an hour and a half away.

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Cape May Lighthouse (Image by BirdNation)

We will certainly return to Cape May (especially The Meadows) during fall migration. There is so much to see and do there. Next time I would like to explore the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve been to Cape May in the past for other reasons, but this was my first birding specific trip. Have you been birding in Cape May, NJ? If you have tell us about your experience in the comments! Don’t forget, if you have a specific bird or topic you want me to write about I would love to hear your suggestions.

Day of the Ibis

This summer turned out to be very different than I expected. I was hoping to go on more birding trips than I actually did, but we had a lot of heat waves (96 with a heat index of 111?! No thanks!). Now that the weather is starting to calm down Dave and I have been able to go birding again. So expect more bird trip posts in the near future!

On Wednesday we took Dave’s mother to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. It was her first time and I was glad that she enjoyed it. It was our 3rd Forsythe trip since May, but as usual, it was a completely new experience and just as exciting.

We took the wildlife drive. There were a lot of “peeps”. People use the term “peeps” to describe species of small sandpipers. Sandpipers can be difficult to identify, especially now during molting and the start of migration. I believe we saw a lot of Semipalmated Sandpipers with some Semipalmated Plovers (who are not “peeps”) mixed in. In the distance were Mute Swans, Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, and a mix of gull species. We were surrounded by different flocks on both sides of the marsh and everyone was either resting, foraging, or preening.

Then The Frenzy happened. I’m not sure what changed, probably the wind, but all the flocks took off at the same time. Everyone was flying in different directions, either with their flocks or as individuals. It’s hard to describe what I refer to as “The Frenzy” in words, but if you’ve ever experienced thousands of birds flying around you at one time you know what I mean. It’s always a spectacular moment.

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The Frenzy (Image by David Horowitz)

(I know that’s not the best quality picture, but I wanted to give you an idea of what The Frenzy looked like. Everyone was really high up and scattered, making it hard to get a good shot)

Another great thing about this trip: herons and egrets galore! Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets dotted the landscape, usually in mixed flocks. We even saw our first Tricolor Herons! There were 3 of them hanging with a Great Egret and some Snowies. It’s fascinating to watch the different hunting styles. Tricolor Herons hunch down close to the water/mudflats, Great Blue Herons/Great Egrets are slow and meticulous, and Snowy Egrets look like they are in a rush and run all crazy (haha I love Snowies! I think if I was a Great Blue Heron I’d be frustrated hunting next to a Snowy. He would scare all my fish away!). The Tricolor Heron’s neck was a reddish color, so it’s a juvenile. Adults have darker necks both in breeding and non-breeding plumage.

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Tricolor Heron (Image by David Horowitz)

We also saw 3 Black-crowned Night-herons hiding out in a tree with a variety of egrets. One was an adult and 2 were juveniles. It was our first time seeing Bc-Nh juveniles. They look very similar to juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-herons. Black-crowns have large white teardrop-shaped spots on their wings while Yellow-crowns have small dots. We went with Black-crowned because these guys seemed to have large spots.  True to their names, Night-herons are active mainly at night. People usually tend to find them roosting in a tree during the day. They blend into the branches pretty well, so they can be tricky to spot.

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Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron (Image by David Horowitz)

But the highlight of the day for me were the Glossy Ibis. We’ve seen them multiple times, but this time was special because we counted 100 of them! Usually we see no more than 10 per trip. I don’t know where they were flying in from, but they just kept coming! All 100 were not in the same place at the same time, but they were spread out in flocks of about 30.

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Glossy Ibis (dark birds) with Great and Snowy Egrets (Image by David Horowitz)

Other species on this trip included 11 Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, a variety of Terns (including I think at 1 Least Tern, he was teeny!), Willets, Crows, and Tree Swallows.

Dave and I went to Cape May on Monday, so look out for that post soon!

Side note: After finishing this post, I found a pdf from the American Birding Association about identifying “peeps”. It’s called Identification of North American Peeps: A Different Approach to an Old Problem. If you would like to learn more about “peeps” you can click the link below. You can also download it to your computer (you know I did!) to reference it later.

ABA Identifying Peeps pdf

 

Greater Yellowlegs: Seashore Sunday

Hello everyone! I’m sorry that the weekly Seashore feature is late. It was my friend/bird teacher Maria’s wedding this weekend, so I was away for a few days. We will have Seashore Sunday instead. Since this was Maria’s weekend, I wanted to write about the Greater Yellowlegs, a bird she told me she wanted to learn more about.

Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

Description:

Greater Yellowlegs are medium-sized shorebirds that are part of the sandpiper family. True to their name, they have long bright yellow legs. Their upperparts are dark brown and underparts are white. Greater Yellowlegs have long necks and bills that curve up slightly. The term Greater is part of their name because they are the larger birds of the two Yellowlegs species.

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Greater Yellowlegs (Image by “Mike” Michael L. Baird via wikipedia)

Range:

Breeding (Summer): Northern Canada through Southern Alaska Migration: throughout a majority of the United States and parts of Central America Winter: Southern United States, Atlantic Coast up through New Jersey, Pacific Coast of California, Mexico and all of South America

Habitat:

Open marshes and beaches, tidal estuaries, mudflats, bogs, lakes, ponds, and riverbanks

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A Greater Yellowlegs at Ridgefield NWR, Washington (Image via ridgefieldbirds.com

Diet:

Small fish, invertebrates, insects, snails, marine worms, and frogs. Greater Yellowlegs forage by probing in shallow water and moving the tip of its bill from side to side.

Breeding/Nesting:

Male Yellowlegs attract a female by a flight display that includes a loud, whistling song. Nests are built nearby water on the ground and lined with moss, grass, and other natural materials. They usually have 4 eggs which are incubated by both parents for around 23 days. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and feed themselves but are also tended to by their parents. First flights usually take place between 18-20 days.

Sounds:

Greater Yellowlegs are known for their piercing alarm calls; 3 or 4 clear notes; teww-teww-teww-teww!

Fun Facts:

  • Unless they two species are side by side, it is difficult to tell the difference between a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. There are other ways to identify them. Greater’s bills are thicker, long, two-toned, and slightly upwards. Lessers have a very straight  dark bill that is needle-thin. Their voices are also distinct: Greaters give 3 to 4 loud calls while Lessers give 2 softer and shorter calls.
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Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs (Image by Tom Reed via njaudubon.org)
  • Although Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs look very similar, the Greater’s closest relative is actually the Common Greenshank of Eurasia.
  • Greater Yellowlegs are widespread, but since they breed in heavily mosquito-ridden areas and are low in density, they are one of the least-studied shorebirds of North America.

 

 

Brown Pelican: Seashore Saturday

Our seabird of the week is the Brown Pelican. The Brown Pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelicans in the world. It is one of the three species who live in the Western Hemisphere.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Description:

Brown Pelicans are large seabirds who stand about 51″ in length. They are gray-brown with long wings, necks and bills. An unmistakable feature of the Brown Pelican is their throat patch, which expands while foraging for food. Pacific Pelicans tend to be bigger with slate gray bodies and darker bellies. While breeding their throat patches are bright red and they have dark napes with a yellow crown. Atlantic Pelicans are smaller and their throats are a greenish-black during breeding. They have a white crown and the nape of their necks are dark brown.

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A Brown Pelicans flies over Bodega Bay, California  (Image by Frank Schulenburg via wikipedia)

Range:

Pacific Coast between Southern California and Southern Ecuador, Atlantic Coast between Maryland and Venezuela, and the Gulf Coast. Sometimes found north of typical breeding range

Habitat:

Oceans, beaches, and salt bay. Typically not found very far inland. Pacific Coast Pelicans breed offshore on dry rocky beaches. Gulf and Atlantic Coast Pelicans breed mainly on barrier islands or on islands in estuaries. They breed in mangrove islets in Louisiana and Florida.

Food:

Almost exclusively fish. Brown Pelicans and their relatives, the Peruvian Pelican, are the only two of the eight Pelicans that plunge dive for food. Brown Pelicans can plunge dive  from up to 60-65 feet in the air. They dive bill first and their throat patch expands in order to catch fish. During the dive, the pelican will twist its body to the left to protect its esophagus and trachea from impact. Its body will submerge under water briefly and the bird will surface with water and fish in its throat. Brown Pelicans tilt their head down to empty out the water in their throats before swallowing the fish.

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A Brown Pelican plunge diving (Image by Ingrid Taylar via baynature.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

Brown Pelicans nest in large colonies that include thousands of  pairs. They are monogamous during breeding season. Males will perch at a nest site for up to 3 weeks while trying to attract a female. Nests are built by the female with materials gathered by the male on the ground, in a low tree, or on a cliff. The nest is a scrape on the ground usually lined with natural materials.

Both sexes will incubate 2-4 eggs with their feet. They are essentially standing on their eggs. Incubation lasts up to 30 days and chicks are fed by both parents. When the young get slightly older they will gather in groups. The parents are able to pick out their young from the group for feeding. Young Pelicans typically take their first flights between 9-12 weeks of age, but are fed by their parents for some time afterwards.

Sounds:

Adults are nonverbal, while the young will make grunts and groans from the nest

Fun Facts:

  • Pesticides, such as DDT, caused a large drop in population in the 1950s to the 1970s. DDT was causing the lining of the pelican’s eggshells to become so thin that the eggs would break under the parent’s weight. Since the ban of these chemicals, Brown Pelican populations have improved drastically and stabilized. They are still considered a Priority Bird, but are an example of how conservation efforts can be successful.
  • American White Pelicans are larger than Brown Pelicans are usually fly higher in the air. Brown Pelicans fly slowly over the water’s surface, usually seen in single file or a “V”, with the birds flapping in unison.
  • A Pelican’s throat can fill with up to 2.6 gallons of water while fishing. Since Pelicans have to open their bills to empty out the water, Gulls tend to steal fish right out of the Pelican’s mouth. Sometimes Gulls are even seen perching on a Pelican’s head waiting for fish! Pelicans can be scavengers as well, sometimes following fishing boats or taking handouts from people.
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A flock of Brown Pelicans (Image via planetgreenrecycle.com)

 

 

The Marsh Hawk

Last week, when I visited my friend Maria (my first bird teacher), I asked her what birds she would want to read about. I used her idea of writing about American Avocets for Seashore Saturday, but there was another bird she mentioned: the Northern Harrier. I’ve seen Northern Harriers on a handful of occasions. While fascinated by their spectacular aerial displays while hunting, I realized I didn’t know much about them. It turns out that Northern Harriers have some interesting characteristics that make them unique from other raptors. Here are 5 cool facts about the Northern Harrier.

  • There are 13 species of Harriers worldwide, but the Northern Harrier is the sole representative in North America. It is part of the genus Circus, from the Greek word kirkos. This genus name refers to the fact that Harriers hunt for prey by circling over an area. Northern Harriers are usually found gliding over marshes (hence the nickname Marsh Hawk) low to the ground, but can also be found in other open areas throughout the continent.
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A female Northern Harrier in flight (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)
  • The shape of the Northern Harrier is unique among other raptors. They are slender with long tails and wings. In flight they hold their wings in a dihedral (or “v”) shape above their heads, similar to Turkey Vultures. They display sexual dimorphism, where the genders differ in appearance in addition to the sexual organs themselves. Male Northern Harriers are nicknamed “the gray ghost” and are pale overall. They have black wing tips that contrast their mainly white wings. Females are light brown with buffy underparts that are heavily streaked. Juveniles are dark brown with rufous underparts. All Northern Harriers feature a distinctive white patch on their rumps, which makes them easier to identify during flight.
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Female and Male Northern Harriers (Image via Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)
  • Northern Harriers are the most “owl-like” of all the hawks, although they are not directly related to owls. Like owls, these Harriers hunt both by sight and sound. Their faces are small and flat because they have “facial disks” of feathers in a circular pattern like owls do. The stiff feathers on their faces help direct sound to their ears, while gliding low helps them spot the prey that they hear. Although they hunt in a similar fashion, Harriers are diurnal (active during the day), while owls are nocturnal (active during the night).
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Male Northern Harrier (Image by John Crawley via utahbirds.org)
  • They are the only hawk-like birds to practice polygyny, where males mate with more than one female at a time. Northern Harriers typically have 2 to 3 mates, although some stay monogamous. Each female has her own nest and the male attends to each one individually. When food is abundant, a male can have up to 5 mates per season. According to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s website, there was one individual male who tended to 7 nest simultaneously!
  • Northern Harriers can have over 5 different flight shapes. Many observers are surprised when they find them flying high, since they are usually seen lower to the ground. The best features to look for while trying to identify a Northern Harrier in flight is the white rump and long slender wings.

 

American Avocet: Seashore Saturday

Today’s bird of the week, the American Avocet, was a suggestion from one of my best friends, Maria. Maria took me on my very first birding trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR a few years ago and was the person who started teaching me how to id birds. She also suggesting the Northern Harrier and Great Yellowlegs, so I will probably write about them sometime soon. If you ever have any suggestions of birds you would like to learn about, please let me know in the comments.

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

Description:

The graceful American Avocet is a large shorebird that is a member of the sandpiper family. Its plumage is white and features black stripes on its back. During breeding season, the plumage on the Avocet’s head and neck are rust-colored, while in the winter they are gray. The Avocet’s most distinctive feature is their long, upcurved bill, which makes them unique among shorebirds.

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A pair of breeding American Avocets (Image via houstonaudubon.org)

Range:

Breeding (summer): Western United States and southwestern Canada Winter: Southern Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, parts of Mexico Migration: throughout the Western United States. Year Round on the coast of California and Eastern Coast of Texas

Habitat:

Beaches, shallow lakes, and extensive mudflats. Avocets prefer wide open areas with very sparse vegetation. Birds that live inland prefer freshwater.

Food:

Feeds on mainly crustaceans and insects found in shallow waters. Avocets forage by submerging their upturned bills in the water and sweeping it through to finding food by touch. They also can plunge their heads into the water or visually find food in mudflats.

Breeding/Nesting:

Male Avocets court females by preening themselves with water. By the end of the display he works himself into a splashing frenzy before mounting a female. After mating, pairs will intertwine their necks and run straight ahead to develop their territory. They will perform rituals, such as standing in a circle in pairs and pointing their bills up towards each other.

Avocets nest in loose colonies that are sometimes mixed with Black-necked Stilts. Like many other shorebirds, the nest is not much more than a scrape in the ground lined with materials found nearby. Some Avocets build a small mound that can be around a foot tall. Between 3-5 eggs are incubated by both parents for 23-25 days. The pair switches off during the day while the female incubates at night. Once hatched, the young are precocial, so they leave the nest within 24 hours and can feed themselves. The parents will tend to them until their first flight, which usually occurs between 4-5 week after hatching.

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An Avocet chick (Image by Artur Morris/VIREO via aubudon.org)

Sounds:

a loud repeated kwhep!

Fun Facts:

  • While in their non-breeding winter plumage, American Avocets look very similar to Black-necked Stilts. Avocets have an upturned bill and pale legs, while Stilts have pink legs and straight bills.
  • The female Avocet’s bill is more strongly upturned than the males. Nobody knows why this is the case.
  • American Avocets can be aggressive while defending their territory. They have been known to physically attack birds such as Common Ravens and Northern Harriers. While approaching an intruder, they may outstretch their wings while walking forward as if on a tightrope. They can also use a series of descending pitches to simulate a Doppler effect, making it seem to the intruder that they are closer to attacking than they really are.
  • Female Avocets have been known to sometimes parasitize the nest of others. They may lay up to 4 eggs in another female’s nest to be incubated. Sometimes single Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of Mew Gulls. There have also been cases of Black-necked Stilts or Common Tern eggs being found in Avocet nests.