Late afternoon birding can be mellow

Check out the bills on these black skimmers — can you see their eyes? CREDIT: Michael Givant

This willet’s left leg is injured. I saw the bird a few days later, and it seemed to be walking a little better. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A sandwich tern on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

These two laughing gulls are coming into summer plumage. The wings, held slightly away from their bodies, indicate a mutual interest. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Check out the black skimmer’s bill with a longer lower mandible. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Three royal terns well into their summer plumage on Whitney Beach last winter. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

“Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?”

From Sandy Denny, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

Lowering sun, hard shadows falling on white sand and gathering birds make late afternoon not only a very good time to bird on Whitney Beach but also a spiritual time.

One afternoon at the end of January, the setting sun is laying a golden carpet on the water’s edge. Three dozen sanderlings race after small, gently rolling waves, put their small bills into the sand with startling speed and then run to avoid an incoming wave. At a distance they resemble scurrying insects. Up close the sanderlings have two elegant identifying features: a thin dark brown line that runs across the top of their wings at the joint and dark brown showing at the tail.

Full-bodied royal terns — beach regulars — are recognizable by their large orange-yellow bills. Mixed in with them are the smaller, more slender cousins, the sandwich terns that have long, thin, black bills whose yellow tips give them a banana-like look. Through binoculars I look at a ring-billed gull, whose yellow bill has a black band near the tip, floating in shallow water surrounded by the fiery yellow of the setting sun.

Most of the remaining birds fly out to the sun. How do they know when it’s time to go? The sanderlings now fly into the path of the sun’s red ball then turn north, flying low over the water. Turning again, they fly the other way. Walking down the beach there are two-dozen other birds clumped up on the wet sand at the water’s edge. They apparently have a different curfew. In my mind’s ear I hear the words from the old Sandy Denny song sung by Judy Collins. I don’t take them literally. Instead I feel the music, and mellowness runs through me with a tinge of wonder at the birds’ timing.

Another afternoon later in winter, passing in front of the assembled multitude of gulls, terns and skimmers, I hear a high-pitched two-note plaintive call. None of the royal terns has its bill open. The sound comes again, and this time I see a laughing gull morphing into summer plumage with a black head and white splotches on its face. Some red is starting to show on its bill, which is open and offers a tantalizing view of its mouth, a dark red toward the front and a bright, rich red at the rear. It flies.

Two other laughers morphing into summer plumage are facing each other with wing joints held away from their bodies. This is a strong indication of mating interest. Later the pair is looking in the same direction. Oddly they both seem content. Perhaps this is love.

Two willets, non-descript, large sandpipers, are walking down the beach looking lean, lithe and oddly like little merry-go-round racehorses. Their bills look a little too long for their bodies, and the birds always seem to be carrying them like a medieval knight did his lance on horseback. The birds plunge those bills, slightly open like chop sticks, into the wet sand searching for aquatic invertebrates. I almost have never seen anything in them when they are withdrawn from the wet sand and wonder if they got anything. These birds fly suddenly, their dull brown becoming exciting as their wings show a bold white pattern in flight. They land further down the beach where they continue feeding.

Between 100 and 200 black skimmers are here. Built low to the ground like dachshunds, their black bodies, red legs and feet give them a striking look. It is, however, their red and black bills with an upper mandible that is shorter than the lower one that makes them unique. Those bills, which resemble Halloween candy corn, allow the bird to skim the water with their lower mandible and when they touch prey, snap it shut. One is laying face and bill down in the sand “playing dead” and resembles a still life painting. The bird, actually resting, staggers to its feet at my approach.

I sit on a mound looking around at the passage of daylight to twilight as sunlight dances on water, hard shadows fall on the sand and “fingers” of waves make inroads onto the sand. This landscape helps bring me here in the late afternoon. Should most of the birds fly off simultaneously, I hope I’ll hear the old music and feel mellowness tinged with wonder. That’ll be icing on the cake.

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1 Response for “Late afternoon birding can be mellow”

  1. Anne Arsenault says:

    I love the bird stories by Michael Givant. Whitney Beach is an important part of LBK which must be preserved.

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