Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Aug 24 2016

Which One of You Is Least?

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird, Morro Bay, CA via Wikimedia Commons)

Two “peeps” (photo by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons)

Which one of you is a least sandpiper?  That’s the question I ask all the “peeps” when I see them in the field.

This month I’ve been using the tips I wrote in Shorebird Practice on August 12 to find the answers. Here’s how:

  • Which small shorebirds are possible here and now? In western Pennsylvania in August the likely suspects are least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers, and at sandy shores, sanderlings.  At muddy locations you might encounter the relatively rare Baird’s sandpiper.  He’s longer-winged than the other three.
  • Are you at a sandy beach?  If not, rule out sanderlings.  If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they’re noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated.  Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
  • Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
  • Legs:  If you can see colors and the birds legs aren’t muddy you’ve hit the jackpot.  Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs.   If you cannot see leg color then …
  • Posture while feeding:  Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
    • Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes.  They look hunched.
    • Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
    • (Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
  • Bills:  All are black.
    • Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
    • Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
  • Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  “Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles).”  They say that leasts like edges.

So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper?  It’s a trick question.  Both are.  And yet they’re standing up to their bellies in water to confound the “leasts liked edges” statement.  Notice their yellow legs.


p.s. Here are two extensive resources on identifying peeps:  ABA’s in-depth identification of peeps and Peep identification at The Nutty Birder website.

(photo by Mike Baird from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 12 2016

Shorebird Practice

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s shorebird time and many of us are confused. In southwestern Pennsylvania we only see these birds on migration and a lot of them look alike.

I’m not good at shorebirds but I want to be better.  What to do? Practice!  Here are some tips I’m using this month, written down so I don’t forget.  Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Prepare in advance.
  2. Take your time.
  3. For some brown/gray shorebirds, 3 field marks are all you need:
    1. Size compared to other birds,
    2. Beak shape, size and color,
    3. Leg length (relative to body) and color.

Still stumped? You’ll have to read …


Prepare in advance:

  • Choose a birding location with lots of shorebirds so you can compare sizes, shapes and behavior.
  • Before you go, narrow your choices to what’s possible at that location at that time of year. Make a list. Highlight the common ones.  Bookmarks help.
  • Take field guides(*), a scope(+), a sun hat, and maybe a chair.  These birds stay put. So will you.

Methods in the field:

  • Take your time!  Study their behavior.  Quick impressions don’t work.
  • Pick one bird to identify.  Learn it well then move on.
  • Don’t focus on plumage yet unless the bird has really striking colors or patterns.  (Plumage is the least useful field mark on difficult shorebirds.)
  • Size: Compare to other shorebirds.  (ex: smaller than a killdeer?)
  • Silhouette:
    • Beak shape: Long or short? Straight or Curved up or down? Convex (bulged) or thin?  Sharp tip or blunt?
    • Legs: Long or short relative to the body?
    • Neck: Long? Short? “No-neck”?
    • Head: Big or little? Round or long?
    • Body: Chunky? Thin? Stubby? Long?
  • Color of beak and legs.  (Sometimes size, beak and legs are all you need)
  • Behavior:
    • Stands tall or always crouched?
    • In a tight flock or solo?
    • Does it stand in water? Or does it stay at the edge, hating to get its feet wet?
    • Does it peck daintily? Grab and go? Move its bill like a sewing machine needle?
    • Does it chase waves?  (field mark of a sanderling)
  • Now look at plumage (adults + juveniles this month).  Does it match your guess?
  • Can’t make up your mind? Repeat the process.


If all else fails, hope for a peregrine or merlin to stir them up. Some species are impossible until they open their wings (willets, black-bellied plovers).  And it’s always nice to see a falcon.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. Did I miss anything?  Do you have a tip for shorebird practice?  Please post it in a comment.

Footnotes:  Here are some great guides to use at home or while sitting in the field. These books are big and heavy.
(*) For plumage and field marks: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.
(*) For detailed behavior of each species (No pictures): Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

(+) Scope: If you have a really good camera it can out-perform a scope. Photos show the details frozen in time.

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Jul 19 2016

Lesser or Greater?

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Robins and song sparrows are still nesting but shorebird migration has already begun.  Lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania and will be followed soon by their look-alike cousins, the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

How do you identify these similar birds?

First, they’re different from other shorebirds.  Though their plumage may confuse you, these are tall long-billed birds with uniquely bright long yellow legs.  Both of them will wade and swim in deep water.  (The solitary sandpiper, also a Tringa, is shorter with greenish legs.)

And they’re different from each other.  If a lesser and greater yellowlegs are in the same pond they’re easy to distinguish by size — greater is bigger than lesser — but you’re not usually that lucky. Here are some additional clues:

Character Lesser Greater
Bills The bill is only as long as its head. Measure the underside from the chin. Bill is longer than its head front-to-back.
Call Tu …or… Tu-Tu (1 or 2 Tu’s) Tu-Tu-Tu (3 or 4 Tu’s in a row) This bird is noisy! Will give a single Tu over and over when agitated. The way to remember greater vs lesser: 3 Tus are greater than 1.
Body size Dainty, slender, weighs 2.8 oz Substantial, a bit bulky, weighs 6 oz
Behavior Dainty. Picks at surface or under water. Runs sometimes. When feeding appears angry, aggressive(*). Runs with long strides. Chases fish. Almost like a reddish egret but without the wing-dance steps.
Solo? Hangs out with other birds Tends to be solo or with other waders

(*) descriptions from Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.



Using the information above can you tell who’s who in the video?  Behavior is a good clue even when there’s only one bird.


You’ll find these birds at wetlands, ponds, quiet rivers and lakes.

If you’re not sure who’s who you can always call them “yellowlegs.”


(photos by Robert “Bobby” Greene, Jr. video by Mark Vance on YouTube)

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Apr 08 2016

Great Blue Heron Courtship


Let’s take a break from birds of prey. Here’s a story about another species.

Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) are returning to Pennsylvania and gathering at their rookeries to court and nest.

This video from Florida shows their elegant gestures and courtship rituals as they build their pair bond.

An added bonus on the video are the bird sounds in the background.  Listen and you’ll hear sandhill cranes, boat-tailed grackles and American coots.


(video by Filming Florida on YouTube)


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Mar 20 2016

Best Birds Last Week

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Purple Sandpiper at the jetty (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Purple Sandpiper at Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Taking a break from peregrine falcons, here are some birds that made me happy last week.

On March 14-17 I went on the Todd Bird Club outing to coastal New Jersey, led by Margaret and Roger Higbee.  We started at Cape May on Monday March 14 and worked our way north to the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Park by Thursday March 17.

It’s pretty hard for me to get a Life Bird in the eastern U.S. so I was pleased to see a seaside sparrow at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Brigantine.  Click here to see what he looks like.   Thank you for finding him, Margaret!

On Wednesday we had close looks at purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) at Manasquan Inlet, above, and I finally learned why this brown sandpiper is called “purple.”  In good light his slight iridescence produces a pinkish-purple sheen in the middle of each feather.  Who knew!

It was a real treat to see the harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Barnegat Light. They’re fearless in rough water.

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

And every day we saw American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis).

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck in 16 March 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck, March 16, 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)


Coastal New Jersey is a great place to visit in March. Thanks to Margaret and Roger Higbee for a great trip and Tony Bruno for these gorgeous photos of last week’s Best Birds.


(photos by Anthony Bruno)

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Mar 14 2016

Mallards Make Ducklings

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are common ducks in the northern hemisphere so their courtship behavior is easy to observe.  Here are tips on what you’ll see in March as they prepare for nesting next month.

Did you know that mallards are already paired up by now?  They start forming pair bonds in September and most have a mate by the end of the year.  This leaves some unattached bachelors however because their sex ratio is usually skewed — 1.33 males for every female.

Now that they’re paired up they get down to the serious business of making baby mallards.  The video above shows several characteristic moves and sounds of a paired couple:

  • Head bobbing: a pre-copulatory action that gets them in tune with each other.
  • Inciting:  The female (all brown) incites the male by dipping her bill in the water over her shoulder.
  • Leading: He turns back his head, then swims away from her to lead her away from the crowd; she follows.
  • Vocalizations: He whistles. She quacks loudly (only the females make the loud quacking sound).

The excitement went out of the pair shown above, but the video below shows head bobbing and copulation. Notice that the male always grabs the female by the back of the neck as he mounts her.  After mating the pair bridles (rears up) and steams (swims with head low).  Sometimes the male turns back his head and leads again.

Mallards are monogamous but Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America says that “paired males actively pursue forced extra pair copulations” — a polite name for what looks like gang rape.  Knowing this, the paired males stay close to their females to protect them during the egg laying period.

After egg laying their match falls apart.  Male mallards desert their mates during incubation and won’t pair up again until autumn.  They can afford to do this because the females incubate alone and the ducklings are precocious.

So it’s only once a year that wild mallards make ducklings.


(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube links to see the originals)

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Mar 04 2016

Getting In Tune

If you’ve been watching the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning falconcams this month, you’ve seen the peregrines bowing and “chirping” to each other in courtship display.  Their rituals cement their pair bond and get them in tune with each other for the breeding season.

Some birds have fancier courtship displays.  Pairs of waved albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata) get reacquainted after six months at sea by doing a courtship dance.

The video above shows their elaborate ritualized moves: bill clacking, rapid bill circling, bowing, touching the ground and their sides with their beaks, raising their bills, and making a whoo sound.  You have to visit the Galápagos to see them as it’s the only place where they breed.

The pairs do their dance in time for the female to lay her single egg in April to June.  Nestlings reach adult size in December and leave the colony by January to forage at sea until they reach maturity at 5-6 years old.

During El Niño there is too little food to raise a family so many birds don’t breed at all.  This year is a hard one for the waved albatross.

Sadly, this species is critically endangered.  The waved albatross’ range is confined to the Galápagos and the Humboldt current off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador.  Though long-lived, these birds are slow to reproduce and their population is declining, especially at the hands of longline fishing.

It’s quite a privilege to see them dance.


(video from Peregrine Travel Centre Adelaide on YouTube)

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Mar 01 2016

Out In The Open

American bittern with fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern with fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bitterns are usually hard to find because their plumage matches their favorite habitat — marshland vegetation.  Last week I saw one easily when he stepped into the open to catch a big black fish at Green Cay Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida.

These photos, taken at a New Jersey marsh by Billtacular, are so similar to my experience that I just had to share.

At first the bittern was impossible to find.  I saw him nearby when he moved but he “disappeared” into the background when he stood still.

American bittern craning his neck (photo by Billtacular on Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern craning his neck (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

A fish caught his eye and he struck.  What a long neck!

American bittern splashes to get a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern splashes to get a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)


American bittern catches a fish (photo by billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern catches a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

At Green Cay the fish was so large that the bittern had to pause to swallow it.  He remained in the open — very photogenic — until the bulge in his throat finally went down.


(photos by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

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Feb 25 2016

Peregrine On The Beach

Peregrine Falcon eating Laughing Gull, Daytona Beach Shores (photo by Michael Brothers)

Peregrine Falcon eating Laughing Gull, Daytona Beach Shores, 2012 (photo by Michael Brothers)

Throw Back Thursday:

Humans aren’t the only ones who visit Florida’s beaches in winter. Large flocks of gulls and shorebirds loaf on the sand and sometimes a peregrine falcon finds this irresistible.

In 2012 an unbanded adult peregrine ate a gull within 20 feet of passersby at Daytona Beach Shores. Click here to read the story and see the slideshow On The Beach.


(photo by Michael Brothers, 2012)

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Feb 24 2016

Only A Mother Could Love

Anhinga with young in nest (photo by shellgame via Flicker Creative Commons license)

Anhinga with young in nest (photo by shell game via Flicker Creative Commons license)

Last Sunday at Wakodahatchee Wetlands I was pleased to see anhinga nestlings up close even though the small ones are rather ugly.

Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) nest colonially in woody shrubs above water during south Florida’s dry season (November to May) because low water levels concentrate the fish and make them easier to catch.

Newly hatched anhingas are pale, naked and reptile-like though their eyes are open*.  The females lay eggs up to four days apart and begin incubation immediately so the young in recently hatched nests range in size and appearance from small naked hatchlings to large downy first-born.

The nestlings beg with their mouths closed and their gular pouches extended (the skin beneath their beaks), asking their parents to dole out food by regurgitation.

Below, an older nestling has his head inside his mother’s mouth to get food from her gular pouch while the younger one on the left looks angular because he’s begging with extended gular skin.  His throat looks bigger than the top of his head!

Anhinga feeding its young while second nestling begs (photo by shellgame via Flicker Creative Commons license)

Anhinga feeding nestling while second nestling begs (photo by shell game via Flicker Creative Commons license)


Eventually the youngest catch up to the oldest … still with faces that only a mother (and father) could love.

Anhinga nestlings (photo by Jimmy Smith via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Anhinga nestlings (photo by Jimmy Smith via Flickr Creative Commons license)


(photos by shell game and Jimmy Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons Atrribution Share-Alike Non-Commercial License)

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