Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Dolphins of Destin

Another great day in Florida. We took an early morning walk on the beach, then enjoyed the sun while playing four close games of shuffleboard. Does this mean we are getting old? No, says Dick. He played it when he was just a kid on vacations!

Let's take a boat ride before the weather changes and it starts to rain on Thursday. The dolphin tour started with a snack for the gulls, thrown from the back of the boat. Talk about your feeding frenzy! I even noticed the white trailing edge on the wings, and white tail of mature Laughing Gulls, while the immature birds have more brown on their back and wings, and a dark bar on the edge of their tails. Oddly enough, we have seen no other gulls than the Laughing Gulls though.

The captain says they have about a 98% success rate in finding dolphins, and today was a stellar day! The Gulf was choppy, so we didn't go much beyond the stone jetty, but a pod of seven dolphins entertained us. We even saw one little dorsal fin belonging to a baby just born this year. Felt sorry for them though, with so many boats looking for them. The engine noises must have interfered with echolocation.

One guy didn't seem to mind the boats, and surfed in our bow wave. The faster we went, the faster he went!

Swimming dolphins look much better in videos than still photos, don't you think?

It starts getting dark around 4:30 in CST, so we stopped at a bayside bar for a beer and beautiful sunset. Then back to the room where I managed to reduce over 600 photos taken today to about 225.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Read the Field Guide

When we come south, it's always in the winter, of course. Who wants the extra heat in summer? We love birding at the beach, but I always bemoan the fact that we only know these birds in their winter plumage.

The little Ruddy Turnstone is one of my favorites, since I always recognize its orange legs and can make a positive ID. However, the field guide says their "harlequin pattern in breeding plumage is distinctive." I actually read their full entry in the field guide today, and found that they breed in the Arctic and are circumpolar. I will never see them in breeding plumage, and not just because I don't come south in the summer!

Distinguishing Plovers and Sandpipers is always difficult for me too. I love the little Sanderlings who run back and forth in the shallow water. Today, I recognized the little round bird as a plover - a good first step.

But they moved away from the water, and just stood on the white sand higher up the beach, where they almost disappeared completely. Hooray! Snowy Plovers, ID confirmed by a local birder we met! Lifer!! The diminutive Snowy Plover is a year-round resident of undisturbed Gulf Coast beaches. This well-camouflaged species nests on large sandy beaches between April and July, laying three eggs (sometimes more) in a shallow scrape. They are easier to find in winter when they form small flocks and mingle with other shorebird species, particularly other plovers. Due to habitat loss and disturbance, the Snowy Plover is listed as a threatened species in Florida. As the incubating females and nests are difficult to detect, the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to trampling by pedestrians and vehicles on beaches. Looking at my photos, I noticed that each bird wears multiple leg bands.

Dunlins with the droopy bill are also circumpolar. Another bird we will never see in breeding plumage. At least, we think this is a Dunlin...

Winter gulls and terns are a challenge too, especially those species in which juveniles that take several years to mature. I can easily recognize the almost orange bill and black fringe of the Royal Tern. They remind me of Larry of the Three Stooges!

Most of the winter terns seem to have that white "bald" spot on their heads. Thanks to my new 60x zoom lens, I saw that these terns also have a yellow tip on their bills - Sandwich Terns, another Lifer for us!  I can now remember this bird by thinking that it has a bit of mustard on its bill from eating the sandwich.

The Forster's Tern in another "baldy," but look for the black comma of feathers around the eye, and orange legs. Cornell's website says they have a forked tail, but honestly, I don't think I've ever seen one flying. They breed in the Midwest, but I only see them along the Gulf coast in winter.

Great Blue Herons are all over, and I've taken loads of photos of them over the years, but I usually focus on their heads and fringed breeding plumage, of course. Somehow today, I noticed brown legs and a white stripe down its throat that I'd not seen before. For a while, I thought we were seeing Tricolors, but Great Blues are about twice the size of a Tricolor. Several perched on light posts, waiting for an opportune moment at the fishing pier.

Ah, what can I say about sparrows! We saw a Seaside Sparrow listed as a resident here, and thought I had one in this photo. Closer examination, and sharp perusal of the field guide made me decide this was a Savannah Sparrow after all. But that's OK. This bird was in the grass quite a way off, so once again the zoom lens comes to the rescue.

As we walked around the jetty to the beach, we noticed brown, well, blobs, scattered along the sand. They are living creatures, or were living creatures, since many had dried up in the air and sunshine. This one was still in enough water to swim with its little "wings."  I think they are a variety of sea slug called the sea hare. Most of the sea slugs you find online are brightly colored, while these were the color of mud. Can you believe it? There is a forum devoted to sea slugs at http://www.seaslugforum.net/.  It was surprising that none of the nearby birds gobbled them down as they lay helpless on the sand.