Wednesday, May 12, 2021

This Place is for the Birds

Stepping Stones

An American Oystercatcher searches the beach for its next meal. | Photos by Bob McConville

It’s always great to have guests on the Dolphin Explorer, to educate them about our bottlenose dolphin population, tell them about the amazing estuary here, the importance of mangrove trees and to see a manatee or see turtle as well. But it is often surprising to the crew how many people are interested in the bird life here.

As many of you know, we have some bird species here all year long, some that migrate to the area during the warm months and others that show up for our winter (in addition to the snowbirds).

Part of our tour is a stop on an area beach and for quite a while we have been going to the north end of Tigertail Beach, known by some as Sand Dollar Spit. In addition to the usual Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Royal Terns and a few more species, we are sometimes graced with the presence of some unique visitors. Here are a few.

In recent weeks there has been a Reddish Egret fishing in the waters that have puddled after a high tide. Fish are often stranded here and that means a good meal for someone! The Reddish Egret is one of the rarest herons in Florida and it knows how to “dance” for its meal.

They were a common sight along the coastlines in the 1800s but were nearly hunted to extinction because of the unique color of their feathers. Since the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act the numbers have been increasing for this species and it is estimated that the number of nesting pairs in the state has risen above 400.

In addition to the usual Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Royal Terns and a few more species, we are sometimes graced with the presence of some unique visitors. Here are a few.

A Reddish Egret “dances” to snag a fish on Tigertail Beach.

They are “canopy feeders,” darting back and forth, spreading their wings, then casting a shadow when they strike at a prey. This “dance” provides a spectacular show for onlookers.

Another occasional visitor to that beach recently has been the American Oystercatcher. They are easily identified by the very black colored head and contrasting bright orange-to-reddish beak. It feeds primarily on mollusks, hence the name oystercatcher. Their bill acts almost like a shucking tool that we use, loosening the adductor muscle (the muscle that holds a shell closed). Once that muscle is pried open, the shell is now easily accessible to obtain the mollusk inside.

There was a large population of Black Skimmers nesting on this beach last Spring and Summer. There are only three species of this bird and we are fortunate to have one of those nesting right here on our beaches. Their flight is very graceful and they will “skim” across the water surface with ease. The lower bill (mandible) will be in the water and will capture its prey by touch. They can feed both during the day and at night.

A variety of Plovers and Terns also visit this beach but recently a rare sighting of a Bar-tailed Godwit took place. The up-turned bicolored bill helps to identify this species and it feeds primarily in mud flats and marshes for insects, small crustaceans and, once in a while, some aquatic plants.

Photo by Kent Morse | A Bar-tailed Godwit is a rare sight in the area, but always a pleasure to see.

One unique feature about the Godwit is its ability to fly great distances non-stop. Godwits tagged with satellite tracking devices in New Zealand in 2007 travelled, without rest, all the way to the Yellow Sea in China, a distance of 6,800 miles!

One great thing about stopping on this beach as often as we do is the surprise we are given because of the variety of bird life. No two days seem to be the same and you just never know what will land near the boat. Herons, egrets, terns, plovers, ospreys, pelicans and many more species of migrating and annual birds brighten the eyes of onlookers who are often in awe of the wonderful feathered friends found in our area.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel Dolphin Explorer and the author of two books available locally. He is an award-winning columnist for this paper and Bob loves his wife very much!

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