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.
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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