Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 17, 2015 Huntington Beach State Park. 2-6 PM Sunny 30C

A day when strong winds were in a birder's favour. The Wilson's Plover was sitting on Asphalt, warming itself, and really didn't want to move. The Seaside/Nelsons/Saltmarsh Sparrows were still uncooperative notwithstanding pishing and squeaking. The Ipswich was in the same location....and was quite happy hopping onto the boulders which make up the long jetty.  Strangely, the male Common Yellowthroat was also hunting amongst these large boulders. NO tree or shrub within half a kilometre! In the last few days, migrants (including Ontarians escaping winter) are showing up in numbers.
 This tall channel marker announces the opening of the channel to one of the few harbours on this part of the Carolina coast, Murrells Inlet.  Double Crested Cormorants find this an excellent resting place.  The jetties protect the channel, and also create a fine biological island, filled with life, especially on the tides.  Large schools of small fish, and their planktonic prey, occupy the channel with many diving birds, dolphins, and some larger fish.  The jetties also form the northern boundary to Huntington Beach State Park.  The southernmost jetty is in the park, and is topped with asphalt.
 An eager fisher admitted it was a bit early to catch anything in this cold water (the Gulf Stream is still miles offshore), but he had to get fishing in this unseasonably warm weather.
 The Wilson's Plover, below, felt the same, as it flew onto the warm asphalt while I sat.  This is the very first Wilson's Plover I have seen. This rare bird (only 10,000 remain) nests here and along the beaches of the Carolinas. It winters in south Florida, the Caribbean and northern South America.  This one had just arrived from the southern wintering area.
 And below (2 photos) is the Ipswich form of the Savannah Sparrow.  This light form is eastern, and less common than the darker form.  I went looking again for the rarer sparrows of the salt marshes just beyond the jetty: Salt Marsh, Henslow, Seaside and Nelson's.  These shy and "hard-to-see" sparrows are difficult to photograph, a real challenge. So far, I have only managed to find their much more common and less shy Savannah Sparrow cousins. Another rare sparrow occurs inland here in the Longleaf Pines: Bachman's Sparrow.  I am intending to visit Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge in the next few days to see if any Bachman's and Swallow-tailed Kites are there.

 The brackish pools hosted a few Red-breasted Mergansers, taking a warm, sunny break from fishing.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Return of the Alien

Don't get excited....anyone from outside the USA is an ALIEN here. That includes me. I visited here in February, 2014.  And I returned on.....

March 11, 2015 2:30-6:00 PM Huntington Beach State Park (Murrells Inlet, South Carolina).

Sunny, some fog,  light breezes with stronger gusts, 21C.

On the causeway, which brings people out to the island on which is the majority of the state park,  people have an excellent view on both sides of the lagoon between mainland and island.  The salt marshes and ponds usually host a good variety of waterfowl, wading birds and shore birds.

I didn't expect the above bird, from features and shape, waterfowl.  It is usually found out on the ocean or in the Great Lakes, not feeding inshore with Lesser Scaup and Ruddy Ducks, The lack of markings did baffle me, though I did conclude it was one of two species of sea ducks called Scoters. My friend Jon confirmed it is a female White-winged Scoter with no white!  There is another smaller Scoter called a Black Scoter, and a third called Surf Scoter. Many Scoters swam on this day out in the ocean beyond the beaches.  This one decided to take a break. Lucky for me.  We usually do not get this close to them.

After conferring with the Park Naturalists and Rangers, I walked the 1.5 miles along the beach to the jetty at the far north end of the Park.  I was told this stretch hosts nests of two rare
plovers, Piping Plovers and Wilson's Plovers.  The latter hadn't been seen yet, but two of the former overwintered.  Nesting begins in the third week of March, so this was a good opportunity to see them in advance of nesting. The Rangers put up barriers around the nesting areas beginning on March 15, and patrol regularly after that.
On the walk out to the jetty (which marks the channel into Murrells Inlet), I found the usual Laughing Gulls, Bonaparte's Gulls and Forster's Terns, pictured above and below.
Not only do the Forster's Terns and Bonaparte's Gulls hang out together as shown above, but they also fish together, as shown below. I initially assumed this flock of hunting birds was made up of only terns, but it "terned out" that Bonaparte's Gulls and Forster's Terns have identical prey and hunting methods, and are hard to identify when they are mixed. The photo below shows three terns diving in concert with a Bonparte's Gull, the bird closest to the bottom.

Not too far down the beach I was honoured by the presence of one of the two overwintering Piping Plovers.  I sat down on the beach and the bird continued to hunt for food, coming closer to me.
The rounded features, and tiny black-tipped bill make this Plover by far the cutest of the Plovers! And one of the rarest, due to human pressure on their beach habitat, dogs, and ATVs.

I didn't expect to find a Giant Water Bug or Beetle in this salt water habitat.  most are 100% freshwater creatures. We all know the Giant Water Bug, a very large 5 cm. insect found in freshwater ponds. The one pictured above is a Coleoptera, a beetle, not a true bug.  And, one species of Giant Green Water Beetles, Dytiscus marginicollis, is found in salt water, on the Pacific Coast!

After some painstaking research, it appears that this 30 mm adult is a Predaceous Diving Beetle,  Cybister fimbriolatus, which has a large range, from Florida into Canada. I could find no reference which includes these beetles as marine predators.
There were many (I counted ten in one small area) of these familiar birds in the surf near the jetty. It doesn't look familiar?  That's because during their winter ocean visits, much like other Canadians, they change their plumage! Or, rather, their plumage changes.  This is a Common Loon.
Busycotypus canaliculatus (Channeled Whelk), the most common of the 4 Whelk species of Gastropods in South Carolina
Having decided to get deeper into the creatures found alive and dead on South Carolina's beaches, I obtained a copy of the:

A Guide to the Common Invertebrates,

Plants and Natural Artifacts of the South

Carolina Seashore
Susan T. DeVictor

David M. Knott

Stacie E. Crowe
I highly recommend this publication.
Using "The South Carolina Beachcomber's Guide, I found that the crab pictured above is a Mottled Purse Crab, Persephona mediterranea. The carapace measures up to 2.5 inches (close to this one). This is not a "beach crab". It lives in the salt water up to a depth of 55 metres.

More to wants to walk on the beach at 9:30 PM.  NO winter here......

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bewitched, Begulled and Bewildered 2

On Wednesday March 4, 2015, I went for two walks along the beach.  I went south in the morning up to a small stream that runs into the ocean. The river stirs up the sand, making this a great place for gulls and shore birds to feed.  A dense fog permitted me to approach the birds without disturbing them.  It also made for photos that aren't quite as sharp as others taken on cloudy days.
I came across a very large number of gulls, including about 50 Bonaparte Gulls, pictured below. I think this may be the first time I have seen their legs! Lovely.
Clustered nearby, a large number of Laughing Gulls.
These two Bonapartes Gulls were stepping out together (below).
Grounded by the fog, as well, was a Forster's Tern (below), being reflective.

The afternoon walk yielded a flock of Willets (above), scouring the water for crustaceans.
The day ended, and the moon rose over the Atlantic, giving a very picturesque view through the waning fog.

The next day was warm and sunny. Walking north, I found the gulls again. The one below was getting quite bored with me.

Herring Gull

This Great Black-backed Gull seemed very nonchalant about my presence.

Cool photo above: as explained in the first part of the Myrtle Beach blog posting, there are 3 large gull species on the beach, and a mix of juveniles and adults.  Here are all three, from left: Adult Great Black-Backed, juvenile Herring and  adult Ring-billed. The size differences can be seen, largest to smallest. Great Black-backed Gulls are BIG. 

I was seeing a few Grebes, Cormorants, Loons and Mergansers in the surf.  The choppy seas didn't permit photos.  While looking out at these fishing birds, I saw the first Pelagic bird of this trip, a Northern Gannet flying from North to South without diving.

At 4:30 PM, the last strong cold front of the winter charged across the beach and out to see, where I snapped these photos of it.  The temperature plunged 20 degrees in 20 minutes, and didn't recover until Saturday, two days later.  That day I went to Huntington Beach State Park, which will be featured in the next posting.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Bewitched, Begulled and Bewildered

Life's a beach.  North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I arrived on Sunday afternoon.  Good beach avifauna discovery days Monday and today (notwithstanding foggggg).

Monday, sunny, calm and 16C (good for spotting surf diving birds).  Today, foggy with afternoon sun and 20C,  Windy , making the surf too rough for most surf-diving birds. 

Large numbers of gulls winter here, and some of those that winter further south have started to arrive in numbers.  This results in some crowding on the beaches (gulls instead of "snowbirds" gulling!).

The following view from my 11th floor balcony gives some idea of the concentration of gulls.

Note that they are mostly facing south. The wind today was blowing from the south.  There are at least 4 species of gulls in this photo.  Although they are clustered, there are distinct groups which do not mix much.  Closest to the surf on the right are Great Black-backed Gulls, and Herring Gulls. The smaller black gulls standing close together on the left centre are Laughing Gulls.  At the bottom right are the Ring-billed Gulls, our most common gull back in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence area, often found in fast food parking lots.  I believe it is telling that they are the gulls farthest from the sea! Another view of some of the same birds below.

As many gulls were bobbing in the waves.

When I set out in the dense fog this morning(Wednesday), there were clusters of gulls feeding around a freshwater stream meandering through the beach into the surf.  The fast water stirs up a lot of small crustaceans for the birds. On my first walk, on Monday, I observed several of the gulls, in fact all the larger species (Great Black-backed, Ring-billed and Herring), feeding by stirring up the sand at the margin of the surf.  They would do this by "running on the spot", fast motion alternative foot stepping, which is equivalent to the probing of long bills by shore birds.  The result is freeing up some tasty small crustaceans and other small animals.  It is good seeing our "garbage dump" gulls reverting to more natural feeding practices.

By Wednesday, another gull species, absent on Monday, was on the beach in numbers: Laughing Gulls in full breeding plumage.

The view from the condo includes this long fishing pier.  There aren't a lot of fish near shore, as the seasonal shifting of the Gulf Stream draws the fish out between 15-20 miles offshore.  Small fish still abound, giving the seasonal diving migrants lots to chew on.

The view from under the pier gives a most interesting perspective.

 One of the diving, fish-eating migrants, is the red-breasted Merganser.  Here, a pair talk about their future northern trip, and plans for decorating the nest.
 The male, having enough of that conversation, shows off his stuff,  hoping for admiring glances.
Meanwhile, a first year Ring-billed Gull preens, in preparation to a trip back to northern McDonald's parking lots, while one of his adult brethren (below) does the fast stepping dance to stir up some tasty crustaceans.

Identification of 1st and 2nd winter gulls is challenging. Some adult gulls also look very similar.  Therefore, this is an area of nature ID that does create some confusion and consternation. Speaking of Terns....more about them later.  Above, a young, first winter Great Black-backed Gull and below,  a 2nd winter Herring Gull.  It was a little easier on this day, because there were adults with the juveniles. Note the all black bill on the bird above.

The boat-tailed grackles males, such as the one above, are a loud, large coastal resident.  There aren't many here. This one hangs around at the fishing pier. Also, the local harbinger of spring, the Northern Mockingbird, was singing constantly on the pier.
The birds below leave our area during winter, but they are present here all year long[Turkey Vultures on the wing.
I have been seeing many of these birds in the surf (6 this morning again, March 9).  One can easily ID it as a Grebe, but which one. There are 3 that look similar: Horned, Eared and Red-necked.  All three may occur here. The Horned Grebe is the most common.  This view is a bit fuzzy.
The view below ( a view in one can find of all 3 Grebes in Sibley), had me guessing WRONG.
Then I got a good close profile (below) of a Horned Grebe. I also spotted several Common Loons, but they were too far off shore for a good photo.  I could see 3 from my Balcony this morning, and tried to photograph them again.  I will keep on trying.  Our Common Loons spend the winter all along the southeast coast.  And they look so different form the loons we know on our summer lakes.

 More juvenile gulls. Which species?  Note the one on the left is "fast stepping" to stir up crustaceans.  No garbage or French fries for these gulls.
 Another small species of Gull, and I have seen many dozens of them here.  They feed out on the salt water, and do not beg food on the beach.  These are prairie Gulls called Bonaparte Gulls.

An adult Herring Gull above.  And, several Sanderlings, such as the one below, were also chasing crustaceans in the surf.

Looking out in the Ocean, you can see a lot of black dots, mostly diving birds of various species.  We lots of the ones above around the Ottawa River Double-crested Cormorant.  And there are several Brown Pelicans, such as the one below, nesting on a pond up the coast and feeding well to the south.  The one below was returning to the nesting site.

There aren't enough wilderness preserves along the coast here.  I visited one last year, Huntington Beach State Park.  I visited again on March 8 this year, with decent results.  I also plan to visit bird Island, at the North Carolina side of the North-South Carolina State Line.  There is also another small State Park on the coast called Myrtle Beach State Park.  It is mostly beach, but it does have a few trails I plan to visit.