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.

Spotted Sandpiper: Seashore Saturday

This week’s featured bird is the Spotted Sandpiper of the Shorebirds family. Many sandpipers breed only in the most northern parts of North America, but Spotted Sandpipers spend their summers across most of the continent.

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

Description:

Spotted Sandpipers are medium-sized shorebirds that have long tails and short necks. Their bills are slightly shorter their heads and they look like they are always leaning forward. Breeding adults have brown back, orange bills with a black tip, and yellow legs. True to their name, they have dark spots on their white bellies. They also have a white stripe above their eyes and on their wings during flight.. Nonbreeding “Spotties” (as they are sometimes called) have the brown backs but lack the bold belly spots. The sides of their breast are brown and more of a pinkish bill.

Range:

Summer (breeding): Canada to Alaska, Northern United States Migration: Southwest to Southeast United State Winter: Southern United States, Mexico, Caribbean Island, most of South America Year Round: Pacific Northwest Coast

Habitat:

Rocky shores, streams, lakes, ponds, mudflats. Typically found in fresh water environments. One of the most widespread sandpipers in North America

Food:

Invertebrates, insects, and small fish. They forage by probing at the mud of sand and lunging at moving prey.

Breeding/Nesting:

Spotted Sandpipers have interesting breeding and nesting behaviors. In most bird species males are more aggressive and display courtship behaviors while females take care of the young. Spotted Sandpipers reverse these roles. Females will attract males by swooping flights where she makes a weet-weet call, or by strutting on the ground. They are usually monogamus, but some females may practice a breeding strategy called polyandry, where she may have up to four mates per season. She will leave the male to incubate and care for the eggs. Females also arrive earlier than males to choose a breeding site which she will defend. The nest, which is scraped out on the ground and lines with natural materials, is usually started by the female but finished by the male.

Spotted Sandpipers can have between 1 and 5 broods per year with a clutch size of 3-5 eggs. The male will incubate the eggs for 20-24 days. The chicks are precocial, so they leave the nest within hours of hatching able to walk and feed themselves. The young are usually tended to by the male and will take their first flights within 17-20 days of hatching.

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Spotted Sandpiper chick (Image by Nathan Banfield via birds.explore.org

Sounds:

Weet-weet call during breeding; a high whistled twii twii, a single peet

Fun Facts:

  • Although male Spotties have 10 times more testosterone than females, female’s testosterone increases seven-fold during breeding, making the females more aggressive.
  • A female can store sperm in her  body for up to a month, so a male tending to her egg may not necessarily be the father of the chicks he’s caring for.
  • Spotted Sandpipers are almost always doing a teetering motion, although scientists are not sure what purpose it serves.
  • In flight, Spotties skim low over the water with a rapid burst of fastwingbeats, then have stiff short glides.
  • Spotted Sandpipers are not usually seen in flocks. They are usually solitary.
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A foraging Spotted Sandpiper (Image via Missouri Department of Conservation nature.mdc.mo.gov)

 

Black-necked Stilt: Seashore Saturday

This week we will be featuring the Black-necked Stilt, a member of the shorebird family. While you can find them at coastlines, you can also find Stilts inland at grassy marshes and mudflats.

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

Description:

Black-necked Stilts are large, slender shorebirds that are known for their extraordinarily long, thin red legs. They have black from their heads to their tails and white underneath. Their black bills are long and straight.

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Black-necked Stilt (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Year-round on the coast of California, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. Summer (breeding): parts of the Interior West of the United States and Southeastern Atlantic Coast Winters: Baja California Migration: Southwest and Northern Mexico, Central America

Habitat:

Wetlands, grassy marshes, mudflats, coastlines

Food:

Black-necked Stilts probe the water or mudflats for fish and aquatic invertebrates. They will also herd fish into shallow waters to trap them or plunge their heads underwater to catch food.

Breeding/Nesting:

They are considered semicolonial, meaning they will nest in loose colonies of around a dozen pairs, as opposed to colonial birds who nest in the hundreds of pairs. Pairs choose the nesting site together, which is usually on the ground or on a surface slightly above water, such as a small island. Nest sites can be as simple as a scrape in the ground, or gently lined with grasses or small pebbles.

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Black-necked Stilt chick (Image by Shravans14 via wikimedia commons)

They have 1 brood per year with a clutch size of 3-5 eggs, usually 4. Pairs take turns incubating the eggs for about 25 days. The young are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile from the moment they hatch. Young can be seen swimming within hours after hatching. Both parents watch over the young, but they chicks feed themselves. They take their first flights around 4-5 weeks after hatching.

Sounds:

A repeated sharp pleek or taawh

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A Stilt in flight (Image by Joe Fuhrman/VIREO via audubon.org)

Fun Facts:

  • Black-necked Stilts are strongly territorial. They whole colony will participate when it comes to scaring off predators. They will hop up and down, encircle the intruder, and flap their wings.
  • If it’s very hot during breeding, a bird may wet their belly feathers to cool down the eggs.
  • Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird. They are only exceeded by Flamingos.

American Oystercatcher: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! This week we are starting a new feature to celebrate the summer: Seashore Saturday! I was raised at the Jersey Shore, so the beach and ocean are very special to me. I don’t live at the shore anymore, but I look forward to taking birding trips at the shore every summer. Many people in New Jersey spend the weekends at the shore, so I figured I could give you a little glimpse of the shore each weekend (even if you don’t live near the ocean!). So this summer we will be exploring some of the shorebirds and seabirds you would find on the coasts if you spend time out on the ocean or on the beach.

Shorebirds and Seabirds are not one in the same. These are actually two distinct groups. Shorebirds are small to medium-sized birds that are found on the beaches and along the water’s edge. This group includes true sandpipers, avocets, oystercatchers, and plovers. Seabirds can be seen along the coastline but many are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time on the open ocean. Seabirds include terns, gulls, auks, kittawakes, albatrosses, petrels, pelicans, and noddies, just to name a few. Throughout the summer I will be featuring birds from both groups.

Today’s shorebird is one of my personal favorites: the American Oystercatcher.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

Description:

American Oystercatcher are large shorebirds that are about the size of a crow. They have black heads/upperparts, white underparts, and a bright, long red-orange bill. Their yellow eyes have a red ring around them and they have pale pink legs. Males and females look identical. American Oystercatchers can be found combing the beach for their main food source: bivalves (mussels, oysters,  and clams).

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A pair of American Oystercatchers (Image by David Horowitz)

Range:

Atlantic Coast of the United States from New England down to Florida, Gulf Coast down to South America. Also found on the Pacific Coast of California, Mexico, and down to Chile

Habitat:

Always found near salt water habitats, beaches, mudflats, islands, sandbars

Food:

Shellfish, oysters, clams, mussels, marine worms, sand crabs, jellyfish, sea urchins. American Oystercatcher forage in shallow water and use their long bills to break open shells. They have two techniques for breaking shells: hammering the shell or finding a shell that is slightly open and jabbing its bill inside to clear the contents.

 

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(Last summer Dave filmed an American Oystercatcher foraging at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Here’s the footage)

 

Breeding and Nesting:

American Oystercatchers start breeding when they are 3-4 years old. Sometimes they form pairs for life, but sometimes they may form trios of one male and two females to tend to a nest. Both males and female will create a nest on the ground by scraping out sound and lining it will pebbles or shells. Nests are usually found in sand dunes or  marsh islands above the high tide mark. They will make multiple nest sites, but only line one.Oystercatchers have one brood per year with a clutch size of 1-4 eggs. There may be 5 or 6 eggs if two females are sharing a nest with a male. The eggs are incubated for 24-28 days. The young will leave the nest within a day after hatching and be fed by the adults for about 2 months. The chicks will take their first flights at about 5 weeks old.

Sounds:

Loud wheep! whistles

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American Oystercatcher (Image by BirdNation)

Fun Facts:

  • Courting pairs will walk together making a loud single piping note. They will proceed to bend over, extend their necks, and run while calling side by side. Sometimes they will go into flight and be joined by other Oystercatchers in the area.
  • Atlantic Coast and Pacific Coast Oystercatchers  are considered different races. The Pacific race is from Baja California southwards; north of Baja the species of Black Oystercatchers are prevalent.
  • They can be confused with Willets during flight, because both birds flash black and white as they fly. However, the American Oystercatcher’s bright bill is noticeable during flight.

Fun at Forsythe NWR

On Sunday Dave and I visited Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. I make it a point to visit Forsythe at least once a season. I always see something interesting no matter what time of the year I visit, so I was looking forward to seeing what we would discover.

We usually hike a little bit of the Songbird Trail, but it was already getting hot so we went straight for the 8 mile Wildlife Drive. At the beginning of the drive there’s an observation platform that goes out into the marsh. There’s an Osprey nest there, so we like to check out the family in the summer. A few visits ago we observed a small flock of Glossy Ibis foraging there, so I was hoping to see Ibis again.

There were no Ibis but we did see a family of Ospreys (3 chicks on the nest), Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Yellow Warbler. Down below were hundreds of Fiddler Crabs! They were trying to get away though, because a turtle came parading through the mud. The little guy moved pretty quickly like he was on a mission. Although the Fiddler Crabs were scurrying away, he seemed to have no interest in them. He had places to go I guess. Then we heard a call.

‘Ttp Zhe Eeeeeee!”

The call came from within the tall grasses. I’ve heard this call before, but  wasn’t sure who it was. As we scanned the marsh, suddenly a little brown bird popped up from the grass.  Ttp Zhe Eeeeeee!

There it was! A Seaside Sparrow. Seaside Sparrows are drab, with a yellow spot over their eyes, and a large bill. They are usually heard and not seen, so I was shock when it popped out of nowhere. It was our first life bird of the day.

The tide was low, so the first part of our journey was all mudflats. As we continued there was more water, so that’s where all the action began. It was busy: a family of Mallards, Glossy Ibis (finally!), Great Blue Herons, Canada Gee, Laughing Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants. As I was taking notes Dave asked, “Hey, are those birds over the the skimmer things you were talking about?”

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Glossy Ibis (Image by David Horowitz)

Black Skimmers! A dream bird of mine. Every time I visit Long Beach Island during the summer I hope to see Black Skimmers, but never do. There were about 4 of them skimming along the water. Black Skimmers are unique because their lower mandibles are much longer than their upper one. They keep their bills open as they skim the water’s surface until they hit a fish. I was happy seeing them, but wasn’t prepared for what would happen next.

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Black Skimmer (Image by David Horowitz)

On the other side of the marsh something big was happening. There was a flurry of black and white in the distance. I thought it was a bunch of gulls and terns, but it was more exciting than that. It was a huge flock of Black Skimmers coming our way!

I’ve never experienced something quite like it. There had to be at least 200 of them.They were everywhere! And they were loud too, all calling out “Yip! Yip!’. The flock split; some went out towards the ocean, while the rest did a loop around the marsh before landing together in a mudflat. It was by far one of the most thrilling displays I experienced at Forsythe.

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A group of Black Skimmers (Image by David Horowitz0

We continued on and saw another one of my favorite birds, Snowy Egrets. They were stalking around looking for fish while Herring Gulls and Common Terns flew and dove overhead. There were also Great Egrets, Grackles, Red-winged Blackbird, Willets, Lesser Yellowlegs, Tree Swallows, Crows,more Osprey families, and a family of Mute Swans with 2 cygnets.

 

Toward the end of the trail there were some terns hanging around. I’ll admit, terns are new identification territory for me. I was able to figure out that I was seeing some Common Terns, but there was another kind as well. They had black heads, all black bills, and black legs. Turns out they were Gull-billed Terns. They are usually uncommon, but a birder from a Facebook group I’m in told me that they have been starting to breed at Forsythe. It was our final life bird of the day.

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Gull-billed Tern (Image by David Horowitz)

I learned later in the day that Dave and I saw a something rare during our trip. There were 3 Ruddy Ducks hanging out not far from the Gull-billed Terns. I was a little surprised to see them, but we took a few pictures and moved on. In the evening I received my daily E-bird NJ Rare Bird Alert E-mail and the 3 Ruddy Ducks were on there. They should have left for the season, but for some reason these ones stuck around. This was the first time I saw one of the birds on the Rare Bird List in person. I submitted my checklist that night and the following day my Ruddy Duck report and comments were on the e-mail. I know that’s such a bird nerd thing, but I was excited about it! 😛

As usual, Forsythe NWR never fails to please. If you’re ever at the Jersey Shore and want to go birding you should definitely spend a day at Forsythe. Have you done any shore birding lately? If you have, what kind of shorebirds are you seeing?

 

 

Killdeer: Migration Monday!

Hello everyone! Welcome to Migration Monday! In this new feature we will learn about birds who are migrating due to the spring season. Our first bird is the Killdeer.

Yesterday Dave and I were driving to the grocery store and were making a u-turn to get on a major highway. As I was approaching a stop sign I saw a little bird in the grass. I said,”Oh look, it’s a…killdeer??” It’s a killdeer! What is he doing here?”. He was running along the side of the highway and crossed the street (don’t worry, he made it across the street safely!). I was expecting maybe a robin, or cowbird, or sparrow, but not a Killdeer. I thought he was perfect for my first Migration Monday, since Killdeer are one of the earliest migrants.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)

Description:

Killdeer are medium-sized shorebirds (about 10 1/2″ inches tall). Both males and females have similar features. These lanky birds have large round heads with short bills and long legs/tails/wings. In flight, you can see the bright orange feathers underneath their tails. Their eyes are also large and have a red orbital ring that is visible in close range. Killdeer have brown upperparts, white underparts, and a black double-banded breast. The double-banded breast helps distinguish them from the similar-looking Wilson’s Plovers and Semipalmated Plovers who only have one breast band. Adult Killdeer are also larger and slimmer than other plovers. Juveniles only have one breast band, so they are usually confused with the Semipalmated or Wilson’s. Killdeer juveniles are downy, have pinkish legs, and all black bills.

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An adult Killdeer (Image by Claude Nadeau/VIREO via audubon.org)
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A juvenile Killdeer: note his single breast band (Image by Peter Massas via Wikipedia)

Range:

Killdeer may be either medium-distant migrants or residents depending on region. The northern population of Killdeer may migrate from Canada and the Northern United States to Central America and Peru for the winter. The population in the Southern United States and the Pacific Coast tend to be residents.

Habitat:

Although they are considered shorebirds, you are more likely to see them away from water. Killdeer like open grasslands such as pastures, plowed fields, and lawns. You can find them at water’s edge as well. You may also spot them at parking lots, mudflats, coastal estuaries, airports, golf courses, or trying to nest on gravel rooftops.

Food:

Mostly insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, earthworms, snails,and  larvae. Will also eat seeds. They forage on the ground.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males will fly above the nesting territory calling out to females. Killdeer will do a “nest-scraping” ritual, where the male will get close to the ground and scrape out a hole with his feet and then the female will take over. Mating usual occurs shortly after. They will add stones, sticks and other items (even human trash) to line their nests. Females lay between 3-5 eggs (usually 4) and incubate them for 24-28 days. Chicks are precocial, meaning they leave the nest soon after hatching and are tended to by their parents but can feed themselves. They will usually have their first flight at around 25-days-old. In warmer climates, Killdeer may have 2 broods (families) per season.

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A Killdeer family (Image by Lyn Topinka via northwestbirding.com)

Sounds:

A loud and shrill kill-deer, kill-dee, dee-dee-dee.  They are considered sentinel birds, meaning they are acutely aware of predators. Since they live in open grasslands they can spot predators from a far distance and make a loud alarm call to warn other Killdeer and nearby animals.

Fun Facts:

  • And the Academy Award for Best Actor goes to….the Killdeer! Killdeer are masters of the “broken-wing” display. The adult Killdeer will lure a predator away from the nest by pretending its wing is broken and flailing around while giving a distress call. Once the predator is far enough away from the nest the Killdeer will instantly “heal” and fly away.
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Broken Wing Display (Image by Phil Gilston via birdnote.org)
  • When a Killdeer spots an intruder it will bob its head up and down.
  • Nicknames include “The Noisy Plover” or “The Chattering Plover”
  • Killdeer migrate earlier than other birds, usual returning to their northern regions in February or March