Posts Tagged With: least tern

Coasting In The Rain

“The Golden Hours.” Ever since humans began drawing on cave walls it was an established fact that the hour or so just before and just after sunrise and sunset produced the most pleasant light for reproducing a subject. That special glint in the eye of a wooly mammoth just seems so much more amber at dawn than the flinty look of evil it has at mid-day while you’re looking for a boulder to hide behind. We all know photographers who put their lens covers on after 9:00 a.m. because, well, there just isn’t any reason to attempt to create art in such harsh light. Since I am not a professional photographer, I carelessly disregard such rules and can often be found outside actually taking pictures of birds and things at (gasp!) high noon. The argument could be made that my results prove the rule, but that’s beside the point. More often than not, I attempt to be outdoors relishing the special light of the golden hours while crawling on my belly in wet sand toward a group of nervous peeps who invariably take to the air just as my autofocus shows me a beautiful frame of empty beach. But I try. At least the sky IS nice looking so early in the morning.

It must be satisfying to be a meteorologist in Florida. On any given day, there is a 50% chance of rain. How badly could you mess that up? As we drove across Tampa Bay the other day, from atop the massive Sunshine Skyway Bridge, we could look to the right and see the entire expanse of the bay and the metropolises of Tampa and Saint Petersburg in the distance. Looking left we saw the Egmont Key lighthouse beating out its rhythm of warning. Beyond was the infinity of the Gulf of Mexico. Also in our view were dark cloud formations to the west and north. This is when the words of the weatherman returned: “50% chance of rain – after noon.” It was 7:00 a.m. Our plans of a morning filled with birding relied on the rain not starting until after noon.

We approached the east beach area of Fort DeSoto Park with a beautiful sky and rising sun to the east and a solid, inky black sky to the west spitting large drops of rain and flashing lightning over our heads. I managed to click a few images of a brave company of birds trying to grab a quick breakfast before the tempest began in earnest. As native Floridians, we knew that often patience can be rewarding when it comes to our weather. Within less than 30 minutes, the dark void to the west began to lighten. The winds calmed. Water stopped leaking from above. White puffy clouds appeared in a light blue sky. We rejoiced. For about 20 minutes. Light rain hinted that we should seek shelter again. More downpour but for only 15 minutes. This game of hide-and-seek with the sun continued all morning. We may have seen less birds than usual but we also encountered much less human traffic than normal. A plus. After a light brunch of fresh orange slices and granola, we alternately birded, talked in the car while it rained, fished, drove through puddles and generally enjoyed a simply wonderful morning together on the edge of the world.

Although we didn’t find huge numbers of birds today, there was a nice mix of species on one stretch of shoreline. It helps to have a variety literally side by side for size comparison. We don’t often get great looks at Common Terns and it’s always great to see a Marbled Godwit. More and more shorebirds will be arriving in the coming weeks and we look forward to more coasting – come rain or come shine.

 

Not quite as striking as during breeding, the Common Tern is nevertheless quite handsome. These strong fliers travel a great distance each year between breeding and wintering grounds.

Common Tern

Common Tern

Common Tern

Common Tern

 

Just a bit larger than Common Terns, Sandwich Terns in non-breeding plumage usually show clean white foreheads and a slender dark bill with a yellow tip. The wing-stretch in the second image gives you an idea of how long the wings are on these long-distance fliers.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern

 

Least Terns, the smallest of all North American terns, are also one of the most feisty birds around when it comes to defending territory or young.

Least Tern

Least Tern

 

This group shot is not clear, but it shows the relative sizes of the following (left to right): Sandwich Tern, 2 Least Terns, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern.

Least Tern, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern

Least Tern, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern

 

Among the smallest of the plovers, the Semipalmated Plover gets its name from having partially webbed feet. The similar looking Wilson’s Plover has a much stouter all black bill. The Common Ringed Plover is nearly identical to the Semipalmated but after breeding in the Arctic is seldom seen in North America. The second image isn’t great but is an attempt to show the webbed feet.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

 

Black-bellied Plovers change from startling black and white during breeding season to fairly drab gray and dark gray during the winter. The transition produces some pretty neat patterns!

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

 

At barely six inches long, the Least Sandpiper is one of the smallest sandpipers. A slightly downcurved bill and yellow-green legs help separate it from the similar Western Sandpiper.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

 

The feeding action of the Short-billed Dowitcher has been described as an “old-fashioned sewing machine”. These birds are changing from the rich bronze breeding colors to their drab brown and gray winter plumage.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

 

A bird’s gotta eat! Even in the rain, the Marbled Godwit maintains an air of elegance.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

 

White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill, each beautiful in their own manner. They were discussing the two-legged creature on the beach with the really knobby knees. I think they were just jealous.

Roseate Spoonbill, White ibis

Roseate Spoonbill, White ibis

 

It’s always a treat to watch the Roseate Spoonbill feeding. The bill goes back and forth in shallow water, special nerve endings on the bill help detect food, water is filtered out and lunch is swallowed.

 

Feeding.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

A head shake.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Preening.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

We always find something interesting at Fort DeSoto. It’s that kind of place. Be sure to pay attention to the weather forecast. Then go birding anyhow. A little coasting in the rain can be good for the soul.

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Linking to Stewart’s “Wild Bird Wednesday”.  See more birds from around the world at Paying ReadyAttention for

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

The Plan

Several weeks ago the Spring migration was winding down and we wanted to see if we could locate shorebirds on the return flight from South America to their northern breeding grounds. It’s not that I’m anti-social (do NOT ask Gini her opinion), but I gravitate toward areas which might be less visited by humans. Even if the potential for species diversity is not as great, if it’s just the two of us it seems, well, more intimate and “special”. I’m selfish that way.

Pine Island came to mind. There are at least four different communities in Florida bearing the name “Pine Island”. This one is in Hernando County at the end of a really nice country road which snakes through the vast flat salt marsh on the Gulf Coast. On past trips, the last stretch of road has produced Clapper Rails, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Bald Eagles, rainbows and is a wonderful prelude to the actual beach area. The beach is small but across the channel is a mudflat which attracts all sorts of birds. The view from the beach is the open Gulf of Mexico and with a scope at this time of year could yield mergansers and loons.

I checked the weather forecast and recent birding reports. Sandwiches were packed, a breakfast of granola and fresh orange slices got us off to a great start and we set out into the pre-dawn darkness. One little thing I forgot to check, tidal charts. That “wonderful prelude” road was filled with water and no speck of mud was in sight. No worries. To the beach! That’s odd. We’ve never seen anyone at the entrance station before. It’s usually put your money in the slot and get a ticket. “Good Morning, folks! How many dogs do you have?” Uhhh, none. “Oh, that’s okay. Enjoy your day.” Dogs?? Yes, today was “Bark Island” day, a twice-monthly affair when dog owners could bring their pets to the beach, unleash them and sit back and watch the fun! I made a valiant effort to set up the scope and scan the water for signs of floating feathered fowl. Nothing. A Laughing Gull landed nearby hoping for a chunk of bread. Three dozen yapping balls of fur convinced him to take flight to the Yucatan. Sigh. Time for Plan B.

Just around the corner was Bayport Park, a nice county facility with new modern boat ramps, fishing pier and picnic area. A small wooded area sometimes held good numbers of migrating warblers. Not this day. I saw a pair of Horned Grebes about a thousand miles out in the bay who sensed I was looking at them and submerged never to be seen again. Sigh. Thank goodness for Plan C!

Down the road was a lovely hardwood swamp with an old logging road through it and several hiking trails to explore. The Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area is home to black bears, bobcats, turkeys (!), owls and possibly some of those resting warblers. Alas, it was not to be. Once more, I had failed to check a little detail. Today was the first day of the Spring Turkey hunting season. Boom! Blam! We heard the fun long before we came face to face with orange vest-clad hunters fanning out from the trailhead in all directions. Okay, full disclosure. I didn’t really have a Plan D. Quick thinking, however, salvaged our day.

Not all that far north was the town of Crystal River and a road which ran parallel to the actual Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the trail is Fort Island Gulf Beach. Another very small beach directly on the Gulf. Listen. Hear that? No barking! No booming or blamming! A few hardy souls (obviously not from Florida) were wading into the chilly water pretending it was as wonderful as a warm bath. Right.

On the beach, in addition to shivering tourists, we found several dozen napping Black Skimmers, a few hundred Laughing Gulls, a young Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Terns, a Least Tern and a not very common Bonaparte’s Gull.

We enjoyed our sandwiches under a bright blue sky with a salty breeze making us comfortable in Florida’s ample sunshine. An Eastern Bluebird yanked a fat grub from the ground, took it to a utility wire above us and enjoyed his lunch, too.

Photographs with size comparisons coming up. There will be a test so study hard!

 

The Royal Tern is the second largest tern in North America with only the Caspian being larger. The Royal has an orange-yellow bill while the Caspian’s is red. Except for a short period during breeding, the Royal’s forehead is white and the Caspian’s is either black or “smudgy”. (During our visit, we noted several Royal Terns with bands/rings.)

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

This is only the second Bonaparte’s Gull I’ve seen. It’s one of the smallest gulls in the country and has a distinctive graceful flight. It often swims on the water’s surface like a duck.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

 

Least Terns are the smallest terns in North America and breed along Florida’s coast. They usually nest near beaches but will also use the flat roofs of buildings. This can present problems because some buildings use tar to hold gravel in place. The tar can become very hot and burn the birds’ feet or become stuck in their feathers.

Least Tern

Least Tern

 

One of our largest gulls is the Herring Gull. It takes four years for a juvenile Herring Gull to reach adult plumage. In their first year they are mostly mottled brown and gradually change to more and more gray and white. As adults they will sport light gray backs, black wingtips, white heads and underparts. This appears to be a first-year bird.

Herring Gull - Immature

Herring Gull – Immature

 

Herring Gull - Immature, Laughing Gull

Herring Gull – Immature, Laughing Gull

 

The lineup. From left to right: Royal Terns, Herring Gull, Least Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull (in front), Laughing Gull and Ring-billed Gull. I tried to get them all to face the camera but I think they spotted someone down the beach with a sandwich.

Gulls and Terns

Gulls and Terns

 

As the sun was almost directly overhead, many of the birds thought it was a fine time for a nap. A Laughing Gull and Black Skimmer snooze on the sand.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

 

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

One bird who was not asleep was this Eastern Bluebird. He saw us break out our sandwiches and jumped into the grass, pulled up a juicy grub, beat it on the ground to tenderize it and took it above our heads and gulped it down. Yum!

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

 

 

I recently blathered on about planning (The Importance of a Plan). This is where I admonish: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even back-up plans can go awry. In my case, I’m very blessed to have a partner who genuinely enjoys just exploring our world, with or without a plan. And, for me, THAT’S all I ever need!

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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