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.