Sunday, July 28, 2019

Learning the Ropes Along the Bayshore

Last week, the Bayshore had zero shorebirds. Zero. This week, hundreds of shorebirds were back from their arctic breeding bonanza. Connie and I spent some time on the beach watching the newly arrived birds feeding on the remaining horseshoe crab eggs and other stuff. There were mostly Semi-palmated Sandpipers and some Sanderlings too. Connie doesn't spend as much time studying birds as I do so we spent time today learning the difference between the species and differentiating between young birds and adults.

Our first lesson was to learn how to identify Sanderling. Sanderling are slightly larger than Semi-palmated Sandpipers. They also have more orange around the neck and only have 3 toes. We didn't focus on the toe thing since that requires a closer examination. At this time of year, Sanderling are molting from their bright brown/red breeding plumage to gray winter plumage. They will spend their time along our Bayshore making that change. This bird has just about begun the transformation. You can see a few gray feathers coming in on her back.

Sanderling - YN=
The fact that Sanderling are molting can make the identification either harder or easier. Harder because you can't look for the same pattern on each bird. Easier because you can assume that if the bird looks different, it is probably a Sanderling. On the other hand, the Semi-palmated Sandpipers are not molting which means that they all look the same. Whether they are well behaved like this little guy . . .

Semi-palmated Sandpiper
 . . . or bickering like these two. Their feathers are all uniformly brown and boring. 

Beach Brawl
The only way to really understand the birds that you are observing is to actually observe them. Spend time watching their behavior and noticing subtle plumage traits like molt. Only then will you truly learn about the bird. 

Speaking of learning, our observation skills also alerted us to watch the Least Terns. Least Terns are an endangered species that nests on sandy beaches by the ocean. Cape May has protected areas for them and it has been very successful over the years. At this time of year, the babies are old enough to learn how to fend for themselves. They test their skills along the Bayshore since the water is calmer. Connie and I heard this guy calling to Mom while he tried his luck.

He would fly along the shallow water . . .

Juvenile Least Tern
. . . and hover like this. He dove a few times but came up empty. 

Juvenile Least Tern hovering
He called to Mom a lot as if saying "Look Mom. Look Mom". Mom watched from the sandbar.

Least Tern - Adult
I assume that she knew he would be successful and wasn't worried since she didn't budge to help. 

Look at the plumage difference between Junior and Mom. Mom has a bright yellow bill, black cap and white forehead that make her look like she's wearing a mask. Junior has a black bill and not much of a cap at all. He'll get their next year but for now, he needs to use all of his energy learning to fend for himself before heading south for the winter. Once again, we might mistake these 2 birds for separate species if we didn't take the time to learn that they were on the beach as a family. 

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