Archive for March, 2010

Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, Piping Plovers and Red Knots

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Our last day on Kiawah was rainy all day, except for a short break of about an hour just before noon, when I headed out to the beach. It was beautiful. A low, stormy gray sky, gray-green water, and only three or four other people as far as I could see. Not many birds, either, but a few. Brown Pelicans, a Cormorant, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls and one Laughing Gull flew over. Forster’s Terns still flew and hovered over the edge of the waves. Dolphins swam just offshore, dark arcs that rose and disappeared.

A Black-bellied Plover foraged around tidal pools, with a solitary Ruddy Turnstone that stayed right with it, though a few feet away. When the Plover flew, the Turnstone flew, and settled near it again. Six Piping Plovers skittered over the sand nearby. Two of them were coming into breeding plumage, with a thin, broken black band around the neck.

And one Red Knot fed on the edge of the surf for a long time. It took me a while to figure out what it was, because it was alone and not in a flock. Watching it long enough to get a very good look, fairly close, I could even see a pale cinnamon color emerging on the speckled breast, though it was still mostly gray all over. It fed by probing fast and steadily in the sand as it moved, intent on its work. At a different spot along the beach, two more Red Knots flew in and fed along the edge of the waves in much the same way. Maybe there was a larger flock nearby.

The rain began to fall harder, and by late afternoon and evening had become a deluge that lasted all night.

White Ibis, Little Blue Heron and Clapper Rail

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

In addition to the missing Osprey nest nearby, highlights around the Willet Pond on Kiawah included a fine Gray Catbird sitting among brown marsh grass, and several Red-winged Blackbirds, whose shoulder patches gleamed very bright, glistening red. At least three dozen Pied-billed Grebes were scattered over the pond, floating in small groups here and there. Two American Coots swam in and out of tall grasses. Many White Ibis fed in the grass, mostly screened from view, but visible now and then, and at least one Glossy Ibis. A Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, and one Little Blue Heron – dark purplish-gray-blue – stalked in water and grass not far away, and several Tri-colored Herons emerged in spots all over the pond and marsh. A couple of Forster’s Terns flashed over – we saw a lot of them this trip. They seemed to be everywhere, which was fine with me. No matter how many times I see them, they never lose their magic.

Just as we turned to leave, a plump, compact bird with a brownish, streaked back, stubby little upturned tail and a long thin orange bill swam out of a clump of grass on the edge of the pond near where I stood, and disappeared into another grassy patch. A Clapper Rail – I think. I’ve never before seen one so close and so clearly. Once again, I’m not completely sure – it might have been a King Rail – but other reports from this same pond in recent days have mentioned a Clapper, so I’m thinking that must have been what it was. I’ve heard them many times, but never had such a vivid, though very brief, view.

Does it matter if it was a King Rail or a Clapper? A Short-billed Dowitcher or a Long-billed? Well, yes and no. I’d like to know for sure, and I keep trying to learn more and to be more observant, but so often in birding it just doesn’t happen. You see a bird – then it’s gone, and there’s no instant replay. You’ll never know for sure. Though I try to get it right, it’s not the certainty that I enjoy – but almost exactly the opposite. The worlds of possibility, the challenge, the surprises, the reminder to appreciate how much we do not know – for me this is the pleasure and the point. The glimpses of something seen, but not captured or held, give birding its breath and spirit – as well as its frustrations – and make it not a static, knowable, countable thing, but an always fresh and somewhat mysterious joy. And there’s always next time.

A Missing Nest

Friday, March 19th, 2010

One of the places we visited each day on Kiawah March 8-11 was the site of an Osprey nest in a pine, where last year a Great Horned Owl had taken over the nest in March, but the Ospreys returned in June. This time we were sorry to find the nest gone – but a pair of Ospreys perched in the tree where it had been. A few remains of the nest could be seen on one branch, but the large bulk of it was gone, maybe fallen in a storm. The Osprey pair seemed distressed that it wasn’t there and uncertain of what to do.

While we were there, we watched as one flew in several times with a branch and tried to find a spot for it, presumably trying to start a new nest. They didn’t have any luck on the few days we were there. Each time, the Osprey bringing a stick flew in with it, sometimes perched, tried it out in different spots, then flew away with it again, giving up for the time.

I’ve so far been unable to reach anyone with the Kiawah Island Nature Program, but I hope to find out more about what happened to the nest – and whether or not this pair can start a new one this year.

The first four photos here show the Ospreys March 8 of this year, perched in the tree and bringing a stick to the spot where the nest used to be, and one Osprey in flight. The Great Horned Owl sits in the old nest in March of last year; and the last photo shows an Osprey bringing a stick to the old nest last year in June. CLICK on each photo to see it larger.

Bald Eagle on the Beach

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Late one morning last week, toward the eastern end of the beach on Kiawah Island, a young Bald Eagle stood on the edge of the surf, near low tide, a long way across the sand from where I had just walked out on a path through the dunes. It was so far away, and so big that at first I thought it was a person bending over. When I took a closer look and saw an eagle, it made me take a sharp breath in. It was mostly dark brown, but with a lot of white speckling, and its head was partially mottled white with a dark eyestripe – so I think it was a third-year immature. Its legs looked very thick with brown feathers and its head and bill impressively large and strong. It stood on the sand with waves lapping around its feet, just at the edge of the surf, putting its head down again and again and tearing up big chunks of something. The main impression I had while watching it was simply and purely how big it was. Amazing. I couldn’t figure out what it was eating – I thought maybe some kind of large fat fish.

I walked toward it very gradually, stopping to watch several times over a period of several minutes, not wanting to scare it away, if possible. Then I finally turned to head on up the beach, still without getting too close. Soon after I did, it lifted its wings and flew over me, low and not far, to a perch in the dunes where it sat, facing toward me. So then I walked over to see what it had been eating – and it turned out to be, of all things, a dead possum.

When I came back down the beach an hour or more later, the half-eaten possum still lay there, the tide further out, but no eagle, no gulls, or any other birds in sight.

I never carry a camera myself. For me, it’s a distraction. Almost all the pictures here on this site, Clate took – so it’s really nice when he’s along. But in this case, all I have is words to try to capture how very impressive the young eagle was.

This was one of three Bald Eagles we saw last week on Kiawah. The other two included another immature and one magnificent adult with gleaming white head and tail that circled low over where I stood on the bank of a lagoon. All three were quiet. I never heard them call.

Tidal Pools

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The tide was far out and still receding as I walked further east on the beach, coming to a long, deep tidal pool that lay between me and the edge of the waves. Beyond it on a stretch of wet sand well above the waves sat two American Oystercatchers, conspicuous with their big bold patterns of black, brown and white, and long, bright, almost shimmering red-orange bills. Funny how they can look, at the same time, so comical and so regal. Though I watched for a while, they stayed settled down on the beach, not standing or moving around. Usually when I’ve seen Oystercatchers before, they’ve been both very active and vocal, but these were quiet. When I walked back by them later, they were still there in the same spot, contentedly settled, soaking up the warm morning sun.

Still further up the beach, the dunes on my left receded and I discovered a great spot. Beyond the ripple marks of high tide on the sand lay a large depression hiding a series of shallow tidal pools. In them and on the sand and muddy flats around them were dozens of shorebirds, and in the distance stretched islands of grasses and sand, and more dunes.

Dowitchers and Dunlins fed in the shallow water of the pools. Sanderlings, Willets and Semi-palmated Plovers foraged on the sand and edges of the water. Two Black-bellied Plovers – widely separated – each patrolled a stretch of sand. One Lesser Yellowlegs danced gracefully in water on the edge of a pool. Forster’s Terns fluttered like flashes of white light over the water, and two Ospreys flew over several times, back and forth from somewhere they were fishing. Among the grasses in the distance were a Snowy Egret, a Tri-colored Heron, and a Great Egret.

The two Black-bellied Plovers – relatively tall, long-legged plovers that stand erect, with head held high, were still mostly in grayish winter plumage, but were beginning to look a little more intensely black and white. A couple of times one flew up a short way and back, showing the black patch under the wings. Both spent most of their time trying to keep all of the other birds, especially the other plovers, off their stretches of sand – for the most part unsuccessfully. The smaller birds kept venturing back, and the Black-bellied Plovers spent more time chasing them away again than feeding.

The Dowitchers – plump, medium-size grayish sandpipers (in winter) with very long bills – kept their heads mostly down, often submerged, probing and feeding intently, though two or three paused very briefly to preen. I couldn’t figure out if they were long-billed or short-billed Dowitchers and never heard their calls – the only way I might have been able to tell for sure. My best guess is Short-billed, because they are said to be more likely on the beach, rather than in fresh water – but it’s only a guess.

The lone Lesser Yellowlegs – a slender sandpiper with long yellow legs – moved with quick, crisp movements, delicate and distinct, with a thin, spindly grace, an airiness about it – quite different from the more businesslike and stocky Dowitchers.

Shorebirds – especially all the sandpipers – are always a challenge to me, and just pure fun. It seems I have to learn half of them all over again every time I get to the beach or the marsh. But each time I see them, they become a little more familiar, and a little more of the different personality of each comes to life. They’re a little like sparrows – so much alike at first glance that it’s tempting not even to try, but then as you get to know them, so different you wonder why you didn’t see it to begin with.

As I headed back toward home, passing again the long tidal pool between me and the distant edge of the waves at low tide, an Osprey stood deep in the water of the pool, bathing. It sat there for minutes at a time, just looking around, in water halfway up its wings, now and then dunking its head and whole body, thrashing the wings – taking a good long leisurely bath. I tried to keep my distance and walk slowly, still thinking it would probably fly, but it didn’t seem disturbed at all and only left the water and flew, with a big swoosh and splash, when I was well past it.

Red-throated Loon

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

One highlight of a visit to Kiawah Island, South Carolina, last week – March 8-11 – was a beautiful, close-up view of a Red-throated Loon.

It was low tide, late morning on a sunny, chilly day. We were walking east on the beach, close to the edge of the waves. Forster’s Terns flew along the edge of the surf, hovering, plunging and flashing silvery white. We passed few other birds, widely scattered – Willets and Sanderlings on the edge of the waves, Brown Pelicans, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Cormorants and one Laughing Gull, flying over. Further east up the beach, we came to several small Dunlins foraging in the sand with Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers and four pale Piping Plovers.

But the best part was seeing the Red-throated Loon at very close range. It was floating in the waves not far from shore, its long body riding low in the water, and a graceful white neck with the bill held slightly up. It dived repeatedly, staying up for only a few seconds at a time before diving again, but it stayed close and was up long enough to see the slender, silky-white throat, the distinct jagged edge of the dark crown and back of its neck, and the dark back speckled with white. These are two of several very good photos Clate took.

Though I’ve “seen” more than one Red-throated Loon before, it was always further out off shore, difficult to see well, and fellow birders were telling me that’s what it was as I peered through a scope – but this was the first time one was so clear and close, so that I really felt I could see it well, and had time to watch it for a while.

Red-throated Loons breed in very far northern reaches of North America and Eurasia, and are only found this far south during the winter. During breeding season the head and neck become gray and the dark red throat appears, making it more colorful – but the graceful shape, sleek white throat, black crown and speckled back of the winter plumage are elegant in their own way. “Numbers of this loon have declined recently in several parts of its range in North America,” notes the species account in Birds of North America, “although it is not clear why.” *

When we finally walked on, after watching the loon for several minutes, a very large white bird with long, slender wings tipped in black flew directly over our heads – a Northern Gannet. This was another unusually close view – I could even see the film of gold on the head and the dark-outlined shape of the long, pale, thick bill. Powerful and sleek, it sailed over, circled once, and almost literally disappeared, so quickly gone. I could find no other Gannets in sight, at that time or any other time on this trip to Kiawah, but there may have been others too far out to see.

*Jack F. Barr, Christine Eberl and Judith W. Mcintyre. 2000. Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Hermit Thrush in Wet Snow

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Our front yard was busy this afternoon with soft, wet snow falling and covering much of the ground for a while. A colorful Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Carolina Wren, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, one or two Goldfinches, a Mockingbird and a big Red-bellied Woodpecker went back and forth from the feeders. Several Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, a pair of Northern Cardinals and one noisy Robin fed on the ground below the feeders and under the shrubs.

Two Brown-headed Nuthatches spent most of their time in the trees above the feeders, not doing their usual loud squeaky-dee calls, but calling back and forth to each other in soft one-syllable bleets.

My favorite bird of the afternoon was a Hermit Thrush that sat on a low branch of an oak, flicking its wings and quickly raising and lowering its tail each time it called a low, throaty tchurp – over and over. Because it perched one way and then another, I had a good view of the smooth olive-brown of its back, the cinnamon color of both the tail and the edges of the wings, and the big, dark, bold spots on its pale breast. Later it dropped to the ground to forage with the sparrows and juncos, though pretty much keeping its distance from the main group and staying watchful.

A couple of Mourning Doves sat in the trees nearby and in the back yard several American Crows cawed loudly for a long time – I finally saw a Red-tailed Hawk leave the top of a pine in the woods and glide away with the Crows in pursuit. Earlier in the afternoon, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed very fast across the road, through a powdery blur of falling snow, and over the treetops low and out of sight.