Archive for the ‘shorebirds’ Category

Great Views of Shorebirds Now

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

 

Birds at the beach never cease to amaze.

Not only are

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Marbled Godwit and American Oystercatchers Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel

they capable of migrating extremely long distances non-stop (some manage several days at a time and thousands of miles over open water), there are different species on the move year round.  Fall is a great time of year to go to less trafficked beach areas and check out the shorebirds there. Oystercatchers, terns, skimmers, all kinds of sandpipers and plovers are either massing up to take off for the trip south, or have already found their overwintering grounds.  It’s the right time to see lots of different species in large numbers.

At a relatively quiet nearby beach in NJ, oystercatcher numbers have increased from maybe a dozen in August to about 80 in September.  There will be over 100 of them before they take off in October or November. Sanderlings are up to  around 500 now, but will number in the thousands in a few weeks. Caspian Terns are in a flock of nearly 60 now. There are hangers-on like the first-year Piping Plover who is spending time with the Sanderlings and the Marbled Godwit who is hanging out with the flock of Oystercatchers. There is safety in numbers, and lone birds take advantage of larger flocks which will tolerate them.

The Godwit was so exhausted on his first day after landing he seemed to use the oystercatchers as sentinels to let him know when there was danger while he was sleeping. Every time he was awakened by their calls or movements, first he looked straight up for raptors.  Then a quick look around and then, if it was just a false alarm, immediately back to sleep. But when the flock flew off, he went with them, having to restrain his clearly much stronger, more precise and faster flight so as not to outfly the beautiful but clumsy oystercatchers.

 

Although some shorebirds will tough it out over the winter in the northeast or even New England, most will opt to go to South America when it gets cold. But before they leave, some species will gather in large flocks.  If you want to get great views of masses of shorebirds, now is a good time to do it. They won’t be in breeding plumage, but they are easily seen foraging to build up their stamina for migration and are joined by a number of juveniles not yet strong enough to make the long flight. Consider taking an off-season trip to a less-traveled beach and see what large flocks and unusual shorebirds you can find.

 

Who’s Migrating Now?

Sunday, August 6th, 2017
Who’s Migrating in Summer? 
piping_plovers_juveline_and_aduylt
Piping Plovers,
Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel
Spring and Fall migration get all the press.  After all, songbirds like warblers or goldfinches traveling in spring look spectacular and move in large numbers. And they can often be seen in our own backyards. But migration continues throughout the year, with different species of birds migrating at different times.  In summer, many shorebirds start their migrations south – some having left their overwintering grounds in February.  Usually the birds who were unsuccessful breeders that year leave early and take their time going back south.  Since shorebirds don’t move in family groups, generally the adults which successfully raised chicks will leave mid-summer and the chicks will stay on their own for a couple of additional weeks to get stronger in their flight skills.

 

Shorebird migration can often be shockingly arduous, with some shorebirds traveling from the southern portion of South America to above the arctic circle to breed, and then back again for overwintering. Some songbirds make this kind of trek, but shorebirds who nest in the far north have some fairly unbelievable non-stop migration statistics.  For example, Bar-tailed Godwits are believed to have the longest non-stop migration – traveling 6500 miles from Alaska to New Zealand – yes that is non-stop! And they are not the only shorebirds who fly for days at a time without stopping. Migration can be very tough and shorebirds who migrate south in the summer have the advantage of being able to take their time getting back to where they will spend the winter — which may be a welcome relief after a hectic season raising a family on a busy beach.

A Day at the Beach

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016
A Day at the Beach

What could be more summer-like than a day at the beach? Who doesn’t love having fun in the water and on the sand? And the beach is a popular spot for wildlife as well. Terrapins cross busy streets to get from the marsh to

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Piping Plover chick

the sandy shores to lay their eggs, then return home across those same busy streets; horseshoe crabs lay their thousands of eggs along the shoreline, and eating the eggs gives long-distance flying shorebirds the energy they need to complete their migration; Osprey and terns ply the waters close to shore, diving for food; beach nesting birds lay their perfectly camouflaged eggs in the sand

and raise their equally camouflaged young there.  On beaches, there’s a lot going on! And it might not be a surprise to know that birds that use our shores face some big challenges.

Next time you’re at the beach, take a careful look around. All beach nesting birds, like the oystercatchers below,  lay eggs directly on a little shallow in the sand. For their protection from predators, these eggs all blend in perfectly with the sand, as do the teeny chicks who when hatched, are extremely difficult to see. Many areas where birds nest on the beach are roped off so they can enjoy a zone away from the rest of us enjoying the same real estate.

Want to help beach-nesting birds?  Here are some things you can do:
If you see a nesting area that has been roped off, don’t enter it for any reason.  The eggs or chicks, if they have hatched, could be anywhere.  Plus, the adults have a difficult time herding their precocial chicks, and see everything that moves as a potential predator — including pets.  Even if your dog is on a lead and outside the nesting area, his presence can distract the adults who may
oystercatcher and chick at beach
American Oystercatcher and chick on beach

feel they need to leave their chicks to defend against a passing dog. This might lead to an opening a gull or crow has been waiting for to grab an unattended  chick.  Plus some birds, like Piping Plovers, need to safely escort their chicks to the water’s edge multiple times each day to feed them. A busy beach is a challenging place for a beach nesting bird! If you are respectful, they will stand a much better chance of successfully raising their young.


The beach is a great place to spend hot summer days, and its also a terrific place to see wildlife.  Enjoy the beach and be respectful of the wild birds and other animals with which we share it.  This is the best way to ensure they will be there in the future for all of us to continue to enjoy.

Making That First Migration

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Making That First Migration

Young birds are leaving the nest, and many of them are getting ready for their first trip south. Migration is a hard and risky business for any bird, but the first marathon voyage for many species of birds takes place shortly after they have fledged. How do they do it?

rose_breasted_grosbeak_juvenile

Songbirds such as American Robins and this young Rose-breasted Grosbeak are born nearly naked and completely helpless. They remain in the nest while their parents work overtime to provide protein-rich insects and other food for their babies. When the chicks fledge, they have strong instincts that will guide them to their wintering grounds. They don’t need to follow their parents, although they often fly together on their first migration.

Crane chicks are born with fluffy down feathers and are precocial – meaning they are ready to go right away. They leave the nest and bravely follow their parents across marshes, fields and river banks, learning everything from them – from how to find food and avoid predators, to when and to where they are supposed to migrate. Unlike most birds that migrate, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes don’t instinctively know where to go on migration, and if they are not shown the way, captive bred birds remain where they were born.

Shorebirds are an extreme example of instinctive behavior. Similar to cranes, shorebirds are born with fluffy down feathers and are precocial. But, unlike cranes, they get very little help from their parents. After fledging, young shorebirds must fend entirely for themselves, and their parents usually leave for migration before their chicks. First-year shorebirds make incredibly long, sometimes multi-day, flights entirely on their own or with a few other first-year birds – none of whom have flown the route previously.

Sharing the Beach With Nesting Shorebirds

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Sharing the Beach With Nesting Shorebirds

Who can resist the beach in the summer? It’s a fun place to enjoy the surf and sun and can also be a great

piping_plover_chick
Piping plover chick

place to see birds. Many species of birds depend on beaches for survival, and lots of shorebirds have traveled many thousands of miles to get to the beach where they are nesting. Some nest in huge colonies like Black skimmers or Least terns, others prefer to have their own real estate, like Piping plovers. And who can resist these adorable chicks?

Beach nests are scrapes in the sand with seriously camouflaged eggs that are difficult to see until you are on top of them.  The parents work in pairs to defend their chicks from predators and any thing — (humans and

piping_plover_oystercatcher
Move away from our chicks, Oystercatcher!

dogs on or off leash included), that is seen by them as a potential predator distracts them from feeding and protecting their chicks, causes stress and creates opportunities for real predators (like a gull, crow, hawk or fox) to make a split second grab of the babies.

If a bird is swooping down on you, barely missing your head, you are dangerously close to eggs or chicks. Make a beeline away from the aerial bomber, checking out the sand to make sure you are not walking on eggs or chicks.  Least and common terns are notorious for this behavior and they are very accurate poopers, so be forewarned…this fishy stuff doesn’t come out of your clothes or hair very easily.

Ever see this broken wing display?  The bird goes to a lot of trouble to make you think she is injured and is an easier target for you than the chick which is assuredly extremely close to you at the moment.

piping_plver_broken_wing_display
Help I’m injured! Get me and not my babies!

You may never see that chick, but this kind of extreme behavior is often reserved for the predator they couldn’t distract any other way.  Look at the sand to see if you can see the chick and walk away from it immediately.  If you can’t see the chick, make sure your exit path doesn’t include stepping on eggs or chicks.

Our beaches are great places to have fun in the summer.  Enjoy them, but be respectful of the birds sharing the sand and surf with you. Many of these shorebirds are in decline and some are endangered.  By taking the time to be careful of the birds, who knows what you will see?  Maybe a glimpse of an adorable shorebird chick – something you might not have expected!

The Timberdoodle Skydance

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

The Timberdoodle Skydance

american_woodcock Have you ever heard of a Timberdoodle? These days the official name for the Timberdoodle is American Woodcock (but if you still want to call them Timberdoodles that’s fine with us!). April is a great time to see Woodcocks displaying.  They have a pretty amazing spring mating ritual — made all the more spectacular because it is performed in the sky by an otherwise very quiet and unassuming brown bird.

Woodcocks feed in young forests (unlike other shorebirds). Their camouflage coloring makes them difficult to see as they quietly go about their business hidden in the leaf litter. They take slow steps, using their long, flexible beaks to probe the soil for their favorite food: earthworms. American Woodcock display grounds are usually open fields that are near a forested area and open clearings in the forest or prairie-savannahs are good places to look. Woodcocks are beautiful and secretive wading birds in need of protection as habitat loss has caused a decline in their population. Local birders often know about these display grounds, so contact your local birding club to find out where they are — or go out exploring on your own!

The best way to see Woodocks displaying is to get to the display area just before sunset. As the sun dips towards the horizon, you should start to hear a loud, nasally buzzing sound: PEENT! That’s a male woodcock calling! They call from the ground, emitting a single PEENT once every few seconds. After a few minutes of this, you should see a football-shaped bird rising high into the sky, accompanied by a twittering sound. They fly fast! The male woodcock will make several circles, wheeling high in the sky. The twittering sound is not made by the woodcock’s voice, but by his wings. Several primary feathers are stiff and thin and end in a club-like projection. As the woodcock pumps his wings, the force of the wind over these stiff feathers creates the twittering sound.

After circling the sky, the male woodcock descends towards the ground in a zig-zag. He will land almost exactly where he started, and will start the display all over again. The display will go on until just after dark, and will begin again in the early morning.

The legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold called this the “sky dance”. Here is a quote from his famous book, A Sand County Almanac.  “Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.”

Gale Force Migration

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
Gale Force Migration

Bird migration is heavily linked to weather patterns and systems as they move across the country.  In the fall, fast

migrating_cormorants
Cormorants migrating

moving northwest winds, especially ahead of a front, help speed migrating birds ahead of tempestuous weather.  But fall migration coincides with another huge event in North America —  hurricane season — and this seems to be an especially big challenge for migrating birds.  As people prepare and hunker down for these major storms that sweep the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, some birds may have already been forewarned by their own natural instincts.  Feeling the shifts in barometric pressure lets birds know that a storm is brewing.  But it doesn’t mean they are out of harm’s way.

With this advanced warning, birds have a few options.  They can try to outpace the storm by flying ahead of the outermost winds of the hurricane.  Birds tend to move after a low-pressure system has passed, so if the storm passes to the east, favorable northwest winds will allow the birds to take off in time.  Some birds, especially pelagic species may choose to enter the storm and find the calm eye or center of the storm.  This may be a dangerous decision as birds could be forced to fly hundreds of miles without being able to land.

Some birds get the natural signal too late, and are caught in

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Fallout at Machias Sea Island Lighthouse

winds that come up quickly.  In these instances, they will look for any place to put down.  If they are over water —  to avoid drowning — tankers, oil rigs and anything floating serves as a safer haven than battling gale force winds which would surely be a losing battle.  Seamen on the Gulf during hurricanes have tales of fallouts of sometimes hundreds of songbirds landing on their boats. And lighthouse keepers off the coast find they are often the only port in a storm, like this image above from the Machias Seal Island Lighthouse, Gulf of Maine.


But, many birds decide to stay put during these storms and often we wonder what exactly they do in those high winds and drenching downpours.  They don’t have a lot of choices, so they hunker down, cling to perches and bide their time as best they with the rest of us.  Although little energy is spent perching, birds still have to keep their bodies warm and their bellies full.  There are undoubtedly high mortality rates amongst birds during hurricanes who get blown out to sea or are drenched and unable to keep their body warm enough to survive.

The after effects of the storm can cause serious problems for birds as well.  Habitat changes are a major problem birds face after the storm has passed.  Most birds will be heading south during hurricane season, but the habitat they may come back to in the spring could be changed forever.  Sometimes habitat change is can be good for a particular species, but bad for another.

After weathering the storm, birds may find themselves displaced in obscure places. It may take them a few hours to red_billed_tropicbird get oriented, but they quickly try to make their way back to where they came from.  In 2011 Hurricane Irene swept up the eastern seaboard and left white-tailed tropicbirds, which are typically only seen in the Caribbean, cruising the New York and New Jersey coastlines.  Birders across the country are always interested to see what birds may be blown in after a hurricane.  If you do find these vagrants, respect what the bird has had to go through to get where it is, and don’t cause the bird additional stress.

Birds small and large find ways to weather these storms.  A radio-tagged whimbrel was tracked migrating right through Hurricane Irene as the bird made its way from Canada to Brazil on its annual migration.  Birds are resilient creatures and continue to impress researchers with new discoveries on a frequent basis.  Hurricanes hit hard and when they do we can only hope that most of the birds have left ahead of the storm.

UPDATE On Piping Plovers and Moonbird

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013
UPDATE On Piping Plovers and Moonbird
It isn’t easy being a Piping plover. At a NJ beach where we follow the birds, there were 11 chicks hatched but just 2 that have fledged. Not a great success rate piping+pliver for an endangered species. A major factor is too much human disturbance, including dogs on the beach, which separated the chicks from their parents and made them vulnerable to crow and gull snatchings.  It also kept them from being able to get to the shoreline to eat during the day.

Researchers like Emily Heiser (State University NY), are trying to find out more about Piping plovers and are putting temporary transmitters on their backs, which fall off naturally, to see where they go.  Longer term they will be able to see how far the Emily_piping_plover y fly, but while the chicks are still small the information is a lot more personal.  The mom in a family with one surviving chick left for a break for a few days before the chick had fledged.  When she returned, the dad wasn’t very happy about her vacation — she left him to feed and defend their chick on his own.  When she returned he wouldn’t let her back into the family. Now it’s just dad and the chick, and mom on the sidelines.

B95_red_knotThat amazing bird, Red knot, B-95 aka Moonbird, was recently seen in the Mingan Archepeligo in Montreal, starting the return leg of his 19,000+ mile roundtrip migration. We’ll keep you posted as he moves along his route to Tierra del Fuego.  Go Moonbird!

 

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