Notes from the field, Part I

This resting willet on Whitney Beach blends well with the sand. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A white ibis on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A curious willet on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Laughing gulls morphing into summer plumage on Whitney Beach. Their wings are held slightly away from their bodies suggesting they are interested in one another. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

I take notes when I bird. The notes, taken mostly on the spot, capture the moment. The following, which has been derived from those notes, shows some of what I observed during four days while walking Whitney Beach last March.

Sunday, March 6: On Whitney Beach the tide is as high as I’ve ever seen and there is a breeze in excess of 15mph. As I’m leaving the beach two doves see me before I see them and fly off a branch, wings snapping like canvas sails unfurling in the wind. There is a flash of the white wings, the light aqua eye ring and the red line at the end of the mouth. They go to the bare branches of a sea grape shrub where they perch next to each other but don’t stay long. This surprise encounter with what I think are white-winged doves provides a moment of mystery and excitement.


Monday, March 7: The morning is crisp and windy. There are 30 sanderlings, plump sandpipers that chase after retreating waves, probing the wet sand for aquatic morsels. One curiously stays behind seemingly stretching and doing neck exercises. Gotta keep supple digging for those aquatic invertebrates. The sanderlings lift off and fly down the beach, showing a bright white pattern on their underwings and are gone in a flash.

At the south end of the beach a fast flapping osprey crosses the sea wall with its tail tight, looking like a cigar. The brown raptor’s name is thought to derive from the Anglo-French word “ospriet,” meaning bird of prey. It pulls into a circling and hovering pattern. The osprey’s eyesight is such that it can spot fish from 32 to130 feet above water. Its wings look chocolate in places and reddish brown in others. The tail has now fanned out and sunlight comes through its wing feathers as the raptor, head down, circles looking for prey in the water. As the circle widens the bird appears closer to me in my binoculars and offers a sense of its grim power.


Tuesday, March 8: Forster’s terns diving like stones into the shallow water make a narrow splash with their lean bodies. They come up with nothing in their bills. One rises not far above the water keeping its head down, suggesting that this may be a fertile spot for fish. It starts down again but then flies off. No meal here.

Three brown pelicans plunge, bills first, into the water repeatedly with no discernable luck. Later as they float on the water some laughing gulls are near them, opportunistically hoping to feed on what may spill out of the pelicans’ huge bills. However they fly off. Nothing here today.

There are seven willets, large sandpipers, feeding along the tide line at the beach’s north end. They are a nondescript moderate brown with somewhat overly long bills. The willets lift off over the water, breaking out into a bold white underwing pattern that flashes so fast it’s like looking at a prop plane’s propeller.


Wednesday, March 9: At 7:45 a.m., there are hard light and long shadows on Whitney Beach accompanied by a stiff breeze and a temperature of 65 degrees. Isolated from the “assembled multitude” of terns, gulls and shorebirds are two laughing gulls, with their wings folded and held slightly away from their bodies, a sure sign that they are interested in each other. This is the breeding season and their heads are now black after a winter in which they’ve been gray. Their legs and bills are showing redder than they did a week ago as they morph into their summer plumage.

Later I find the “love birds” at a secluded area of the beach’s north end perhaps to be away from prying eyes. A bit later they are in the water, their wing joints held against their bodies. Are they now an old married couple?

Seven white ibises are feeding here that probably nest on nearby Beer Can Island. Their button blue eyes are focused on the shallow water in which they are standing, and their long, down curved Lifebuoy colored bills quickly probe. One gets something larger than a tiny coquina shell and while chomping on it, drops the morsel. The water takes it along the bird’s side but the ibis twists its head and retrieves its food from the retreating water. I’m mildly amused to see that birds have the same trouble with small waves as shell collectors sometimes do, when their eyes are trained on the sands and they see a retreating wave make off with an interesting specimen.

At the beach’s south end is one of a pair of black-bellied plovers whose bellies are still winter white. They will become black in the spring months. Our largest plover is vigorously digging in the sand with its short dark bill, and it retreats to the rear of the beach standing erect. I want to see what it was digging. Instead of finding a small round hole made nearly invisible by wet sand, I find a square with uneven sides. Nifty. I’ve seen this bird here in previous winters and couldn’t identify it in part due to the white belly. Now I’m learning something about its behavior. It’s been a good morning.

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