Piping Plover: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! It’s the most hectic time of the year for me: back to school (this year as a teacher and a student). Everyone is one the move again, and birds are no exception: fall migration is underway. There are so many exciting things going on this time of year. Autumn begins on Thursday the 22nd, and right now we are in the midst of warbler and shorebird migration. Yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day, which is a day to raise awareness of ground-nesting plovers around the world and how we can help them. Today there are two personal special things happening: the last Seashore Saturday of the season and my birthday! I decided to combine those last two events by choosing one of my favorite shorebirds to write about: the Piping Plover. Starting next week I’m going to kick off Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I also have a birding trip post coming soon and a book review, so stay tuned!

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Description:

Piping Plovers are small, stocky plovers. They have pale upperparts, white underparts, and short bills. Their legs are orange-yellow and they have black feathers on the tips of their tails and sides of their wings. During breeding season they have a black, narrow breast band while juvenile and non-breeding birds have a pale band. Their bills are orange with a black tip during breeding.

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Piping Plover on Long Beach Island, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

Breeding: northern Atlantic Coast, parts of the northern plains (mid-Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska)/Great Lakes region (although population have dramatically declined there.) Winter: southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast

Habitat:

Sandy beaches, sand bars, tidal flats, alkali lakes

Diet:

Insects, crustaceans, marine worms, invertebrates. Piping Plovers are ground foragers who run a few steps then stop to look for food and peck around.

Breeding/Nesting:

Piping Plovers are a threatened and priority bird, partly due to the fact that they breed on the ground. Piping Plovers lay their eggs in a scrape in the sand, usually some distance from water. The problem is that they blend in so well with their surroundings that their nests can easily be destroyed by beachgoers who are not aware the plover eggs are there. Because of this, many Atlantic Coast beaches have blocked off areas were Piping Plovers and other threatened shorebirds, such as terns and Black Skimmers, nest.

Piping Plovers lay on average about 4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for 26-28 days. The young are downy and leave the nest a few hours after nesting to look for food. The parents brood the young, but the female usually deserts the chicks after a few days and the male cares for them. The chicks fledge between 21-35 days after hatching. Not much is known about the Piping Plover’s development.

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Piping Plover chick on Long Beach Island (Image by David Horowitz)

Sounds:

peep, peeto! or a series of pehp, pehp, pehp when agitated.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Piping Plovers are seen in small groups, but they are usually solitary and don’t mix with other shorebirds often.
  • Piping Plovers are native to the United States and just barely disperse into Mexico. They also winter in The Bahamas.
  • Male Piping Plovers have thicker breast bands during breeding season, which is one of the only ways to tell the sexes apart.
  • During breeding, males display elaborate courtship ceremonies, such as flights that feature dives and stone tossing. Males create multiple scrapes in the ground for nest sites and female will choose the site she likes best to camouflage it.
  • Like, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Piping Plovers use the “broken-wing display” to distracted predators from their young.

Please be mindful of your surroundings while visiting beaches. Make sure to obey any signs you see, especially if they are telling you to avoid a shorebird nesting area. Piping Plover populations are under 10,000, so it’s important that we are taking proper precautions to protect their habit.

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Piping Plover parent and chick (Image by Johann Schmacher via audubon.org)
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Common Tern: Seashore Saturday

This week’s seabird is the most widespread North American tern: the Common Tern.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Description:

Common Terns are are white with a black cap and considered medium-sized terns. Their tail feathers are forked up. Breeding adults have an orange-red bill that features a dark tip. Their backs are grays and legs are orange. Nonbreeding and first year birds have a dark carpal bar on their upper wings and black feet/tail feathers. Juveniles have an orange bill and a brown-striped back.

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Adult breeding Common Tern  (Image via animilia-life.com

Range:

Breeding (summer): Eastern Canada and Northeast Atlantic Coast Migration: Midwest, Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and some parts of Western United States Winters: coasts of South America and Caribbean Islands

Habitat:

Ocean beaches, bays, lakes, lagoons. Usually found on the coast but less common inland. Winters in tropical or subtropical waters.

Food:

Fish, crustaceans, insects, shrimp. Common Terns forage by hovering over the water and plunge diving. They may also catch insects in the air or steal food from other terns.

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A Common Tern defends its territory (Image by Michelle Kinsey Bruns via wikimedia commons)

Breeding/Nesting:

Common Terns breed in large colonies found on rocky or sandy islands. They usually start to breed between 3-4 years of age. Pairs of groups may perform aerial courtships where they fly high in the air. On the ground pairs will bow and strut. Males will present a fish to the females. Both sexes will participate in choosing a nest site. Nests are usually a scrape in the ground but may be lines with natural materials. Both parents will incubate 1-3 eggs for 21-25 days. Young will remain on the nest for a few days after hatching and take their first flights in about 22-28 days. The chicks will stay with their parents for about 2 months.

 

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An adult and chick (Image by Kevin T. Karlson via ny.audubon.org)

Sounds:

A high keeeyurr that descends in pitch; a short kip call

Fun Facts:

  • Common Terns who live at the coast drink saltwater. They have nasal glands that help excrete excess salt like many other seabirds do.
  • They are strongly migratory and are considered long-distance migrants. Populations usually move north before staring their migration southward.
  • Common Terns have circumpolar distribution. There are 4 subspeices that are found in subarctic and temperate regions of not only North America, but also Asia and Europe.

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)

 

My New Avian Neighbors

One thing I enjoy about birding is that you can do it anywhere. There are no specific places you need to be. You can find all sorts of interesting birds, and don’t even have to leave your own backyard.

I don’t actually have a “backyard” but I because I live in an apartment complex. But I do have a nice large balcony that looks out over a lawn with some trees and live next to a wooded area, so I see a decent amount of birds.

I don’t really know my human neighbors that well, but I certainly know my avian neighbors. Over time I get to know the resident birds and their habits and am excited when new species move into our area. This spring/summer a new couple has moved into the neighborhood: the House Wrens.

Every morning, one the the wrens (I like to call him my “little friend Wren” haha) sings out from my balcony. I was honored that Wren chose our balconies of all the ones he could have chosen from. Then I noticed that Wren had a plan, and it was sneaky. (Below is a fuzzy cell phone picture of Wren on my balcony)

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My little friend Wren on my balcony 🙂 (Image by BirdNation)

Wren is trying to take over my nest box. He likes to sneak in but doesn’t succeed for very long. The male House Sparrow who resides there always kicks him out. Wren is pretty persistent though and usually will try multiple times before flying off. He’s not afraid to put up a fight either. It makes for quite a spectacle.

This has been the summer of the wren for me. I have been seeing Carolina, House, and Marsh Wrens pretty frequently, but my neighbor House Wrens are my favorite so far. So in honor of my little friend Wren and his mate, here are some fun facts about House Wrens.

  • Despite being a plain-looking brown bird, House Wrens are anything but dull. House Wrens are energetic and bubbly little birds. They move quickly, fluttering about with their tails straight up in the air. Their songs are just as lively as their personalities. They let out an exuberant, trilling song that ascend then descends. (If you’ve never heard a House Wren, I suggest you look up their songs. It’s delightful!)
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House Wren (Image via animalia-life.com)
  • They may only weight about the size of two quarters, but if you’re a bird you better watch out! House Wrens are fierce competitors when it comes to looking for nest sites. If they want a certain spot they will harass larger birds, sometimes even killing the young that is already in the nest.
  • Breeding House Wrens choose new mating partners each season. To persuade a female to court with him, a male will prepare multiple nests. Single males may try to steal a female from another male after nesting has already begun. If the single male succeeds, he will get rid of the former male’s eggs so he can have his own. Females may leave the male to take care of the chicks to start a nest with a new male.
  • House Wrens have the largest range of any New World songbird. Their range extends from Central Canada and all throughout North/Central America and can go down to the southernmost tip of South America.
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(Map via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
  • House Wrens earned their names because they tend to live close to humans and in man-made structures.

Who is your favorite avian neighbor? Tell me about them in the comments.

 

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.

Heislerville WMA

Hello friends! Sorry I seemed to fall of the face of the Earth for a bit. It’s been a crazy, busy week, especially with the past holiday weekend. We’ve been having a heat wave here in New Jersey, so I haven’t been out birding in about a week. I usually encounter a lot going on outside my balcony, but even the backyard birds have seemed awfully quiet and absent due to the heat. The temperatures should be going back down into the 80s next week, so I’m hoping to get some birding in next week.

My last birding trip was actually on Sunday, July 3. Dave and I wanted to try somewhere different. We took a trip to Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. Heislerville WMA is a marsh habitat that borders Delaware Bay and the Maurice River in Cumberland County NJ. We’ve never visited before, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

The experience was a little confusing. We found the signs letting us know we were in Heislerville WMA, but we weren’t really sure where to park or where the wildlife auto loop entrance was. We did find something pretty cool though: a rookery. A rookery is a breeding colony. In the past I’ve talked about the Great Blue Heron rookery at Amico Island, but this one was a little different.

This rookery was for Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, and Black-crowned Night-Herons. They were on a little island of trees, not far from the side of the road where people were crabbing. There were about 250 Cormorants, 40 Great Egrets, and 35 Black-crowned Night-Herons. I actually didn’t notice the Night-Herons at first until Dave pointed out a few; they blended in really well. Some birds were sitting on nests, some were standing around and/or preening, and some were coming and going. It was very loud and fascinating to watch. I’ve only ever seen 2 Black-crowned Night-Herons in my life, so seeing 35 of them in one spot was a treat! (The Night-Herons are hard to spot in these pics, they blend in perfectly)

After watching the rookery for awhile we moved on to another impoundment across the street. There were large flocks of Laughing Gulls and Herring Gulls (easily 150-200 + per species), some Snowy Egrets, and more Great Egrets. We did eventually find the wildlife auto loop. It’s 8 miles, but we didn’t stay on it very long. Some of the other birds we saw included Red-winged Blackbirds, Gray Catbirds, American Robins, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, Blue Jays, a Great Blue Heron, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, an Eastern Kingbird, Crows, Carolina Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals.

We only stood for about an hour and mostly watched from the car, but saw a decent amount in a short time. We could barely walk around though because it was really buggy even with spray on.

Overall, I had mixed feeling about this trip. The rookery was amazing, but it was a little confusing to get around and pretty crowded. It may be nice to visit in the fall when it’s less crowded. I am glad we tried something different though.

 

Laughing Gull: Seashore Saturday

I was unsure about what seabird I wanted to write about this week. Earlier in the day I was hanging out with my mom and brought up my predicament. She reads all my posts, so I wanted to know what she wanted to read about.

“Oh, you should write about the seagull!”, she suggested. I liked that idea. I asked her what kind.

“You know, the seagull.”, she replied. Her response was an extremely common answer that you would get from a majority of people. But it’s actually not correct (sorry Mom, no one else realizes that either! 🙂 )

A lot of people are surprised to find this out, but there is no such thing as a seagull. You read that right: it doesn’t exist. But about 98% percent of people I talk to have no clue that there are no seagulls, only gulls. The term “Seagull” is the informal layperson’s word that is used all around the world to refer to members of the Laridae family, or gulls. There are 27 species of gull in North America. The word Laridae is Greek and means “ravenous sea bird”. This week’s featured bird is the Laughing Gull, which is a summertime visitor here at the Jersey Shore.

Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)

Description:

Laughing Gulls are medium-sized gulls that have long wing/legs and stout bills. They are considered a “three-year gull”, meaning it takes 3 years for Laughing Gulls to reach adult plumage. In summer breeding plumage adults have black “hood” plumage on their heads/black wing tips, white underparts/eye-arcs, and a drooped red bill. In non-breeding winter plumage their black heads change to a blurry gray mask on white. Throughout the year adults have gray wings and black feet. Immature birds are browner.

Range:

Resident to long-distant migrant. Year-round resident south of Virginia through the Gulf Coast and west coast of Mexico. Migrating populations spend the winter in Central and South America and spend the summer in the Northeastern United States.

Habitat:

Atlantic and Gulf Coast saltwater beaches and marshes. Can also be found at parks, landfills, or parking lots where food is readily available.

Food:

Laughing Gulls have a highly-varied diet. They eat insects, fish, invertebrates, squid, and crabs while they gather while walking the beach, swimming, or stealing from other birds. They are scavenger, and will eat human-made objects such as garbage and refuse from boats. Laughing Gull are notorious for eating anything toss by or offered from beachgoers. (Or sometimes food not offered by beachgoers. I certainly have had Laughing Gulls steal food from me while living at the shore!)

Breeding/Nesting:

Laughing Gulls breed in large colones, often mixed with other gulls, American Oystercatchers, and Black Skimmers. Colonies can be up to 25,000 pairs and thousands of nests. Both sexes help construct the nest out of grasses/seaweed on the ground or under shrubs in some regions. They have 1 brood with a clutch size of 2-4 eggs which are incubated by both sexes for about 20 days. The young leave the nest within a few days of hatching and are feed by the parents. They start with half-digested food and transition to solid food as they grow. Their first flights are at about 5 weeks old.

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Juvenile Laughing Gull (Image via wikimedia commons)

Sounds:

They are named “Laughing” Gulls because their loud nasal descending calls sound like laughing.

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(Image by Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. via otlibrary.com)

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Laughing Gulls will eat the young or eggs of other birds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornitholgy, John Jame Audubon saw Laughing Gulls eating Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern eggs/chicks. They also eat Royal Tern eggs sometimes.
  • They are known to steal food from birds that are much larger than them, such as Ospreys and Pelicans.
  • Laughing Gulls are monogamous and stay with the same mate for several breeding seasons.