Birding to infinity – and beyond (III)
(Header Image: Shorebirds At Dusk)
There are some occasions when birding becomes secondary. (GASP!!) This was one of those times. The birds were numerous, it was exciting to see species we don’t normally encounter at our inland home turf, observing feeding behavior was fascinating – it was a birders dream day.
The mid-afternoon sun was warm and the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean was gentle and kept the air refreshed and comfortable. I was with the most important person in my life. Our range of conversation ranged from birds to nature to childhood memories to episodes in our life together to family – our normal pattern. We take so much for granted each day and I am all too guilty of that transgression. Birding is fun. Her, standing right next to me – THAT is what life is all about.
(We now return you to our normally scheduled broadcast.)
“I think I got some on my shoes.”
The Horseshoe Crab is not a crab at all. It is more closely related to scorpions and spiders and is in the Order Xiphosura. There are three separate species, one in North America and two more in Asia. Fossilized remains of relatives of the “modern” horseshoe crab have been dated to over 400 million years ago, before dinosaurs roamed around the planet.
Humans have eaten Horseshoe Crab but it has never caught on as a dietary staple. Commercial fishermen use them to catch eels which they in turn use for bait to catch fish. In the spring and early summer, Horseshoe Crabs crowd the Atlantic Ocean beaches in spots where they dig a shallow burrow and deposit millions of eggs. To the delight of shorebirds.
In the 1960’s, biomedical researchers discovered an anti-coagulating agent within Horseshoe Crab blood. Since then, they harvest thousands of the creatures each year, extract some of their blood and return them to the sea. Survival rate for the crabs is around 70%.
The combined pressure of fishermen, biomedical use and those pesky hungry shorebirds (who have been eating crab eggs ever since both have existed) has resulted in the Horseshoe Crab becoming close to achieving endangered status. The good news is, Asian medical researchers have learned to artificially synthesize the anti-coagulant and have stopped using the crabs. American bureaucratic processes have to date prevented the Food and Drug Administration from approving the process here in the “enlightened” United States.
Meanwhile, some shorebirds have shown population declines due to reduced availability of Horseshoe Crab eggs over the past few decades. Notably, the Red Knot seems to have been particularly hard hit.
We were, therefore, extremely privileged to observe this ancient life form come ashore along West Gator Creek Road on a warm spring day within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and deposit their eggs in the soft sand of the Indian River. The simultaneous appearance of dozens of shorebirds and gulls was equally inspiring as we were witness to the cycle of life play out right in front of our eyes. Incredible experience!
While thoroughly engrossed in the Horseshoe Crab egg-stravaganza going on, life around us was continuing with a normal day on the marsh. A flock of Dunlins buzzed along the shoreline looking for a spot in the buffet line. Black Skimmers apparently prefer more meat in their diet and headed for deeper water. We seldom encounter all three North American “peeps” (the smallest of shorebirds) in one location so it was great to be able to compare them at close range.
The day was quickly coming to a close and we decided to go around Black Point Wildlife Drive for a grand finale to our awesome day. Good decision.
We found large numbers of ducks looking for a safe place to spend the night, egrets and herons grabbing a snack before bedtime, raptors scaring up shorebirds and, as the sun began to disappear, waves of ibises and egrets sought refuge in the tall marsh grass for the night.
This is a very special place and we had a fantastic day. Crossing over the Indian River and heading home, Gini sighed and said wistfully: “When can we do it again?”
Horseshoe Crabs laying eggs in the wet sand. Females are larger and the male fertilizes the eggs as they are being deposited.
A Ring-billed Gull scoops up eggs as quickly as they become available.
Black Skimmers present a unique profile from the rear and quite another as they make a turn.
Dunlin, in non-breeding plumage, were the most numerous shorebird we encountered on this day. You can see a horseshoe crab egg in this Dunlin’s beak.
An elegant American Avocet. No doubt this is a wading bird with those legs! Sometimes, one just has to stop and enjoy the view as she nestled among the shells and gazed at the incoming waves.
North America’s smallest shorebird, the Least Sandpiper, can be distinguished by its small size (5-6 inches/13-15 cm), slightly curved bill and yellowish legs.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper is named for webbing between its toes, but that’s hard to see in the field. They are slightly larger than the Least, have a bit shorter/stouter bill and blackish legs.
Also a bit larger than the Least, a Western Sandpiper has a bit longer and dropping bill, usually a less-smudgy breast in non-breeding plumage and blackish legs.
In non-breeding plumage, the Sanderling is pretty easy to spot as it is white below and light gray above. It is a little smaller than a Dunlin and has a shorter bill.
Here you can compare a Dunlin and Least Sandpiper. They look like twins! Except for that size thing.
A Ring-billed Gull among Dunlins and Sanderlings gives an idea of their size difference.
Along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a Snowy Egret hunts for supper before it becomes dark.
We couldn’t tell if this Lesser Yellowlegs was hunting or simply admiring himself.
Not much doubt about a Northern Harrier being serious! He made repeated passes where dozens of shorebirds were foraging. The Harrier prefers small rodents but will readily take a shorebird, as they are apparently aware!
As the sun begins to get low over the marsh, we begin our exit, albeit reluctantly.
We watched waves of wading birds search for roosting spots in the tall grasses of the refuge. Glossy Ibises numbered over a hundred.
Over two-hundred Snowy Egrets fluttered in front of us and eventually vanished in the reeds as darkness enveloped the marsh.
A dozen Great Egret in one group is quite a sight. We saw four such groups.
The last rays of the sun ended our day in spectacular fashion!
From before sunrise to after sunset, what a day! If you have a chance to visit a similar refuge, take advantage of it as often as possible. We can’t wait for a return trip!
Enjoy your search for your own natural place and come back for a visit!