What makes shorebirds impossible is not just the five radically different plumage's per bird, or the fact that they are changing drastically from minute to minute right when I am trying to ID them.
The problem is not necessarily the effects of molting that makes every single little bird look fundamentally different from the guidebook pictures.
It is not really related to the difficulty of judging a bird's size across miles of beach and endless ocean. Or the way the sunlight reflecting off sand and water can change a bird's colors.
Those are all major problems, at least for me. But the real impossibility arises when you also have ten or twenty species that are VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL on top of all the above!
I am starting to suspect they aren't really distinct species after all! The birds are interbreeding like crazy and someone diabolical is snickering madly at those of us who try and ID a particular peep by name! (PS. If you are learning your shorebirds after decades of dismissively lumping them together as "stupid peeps," I suggest you stay away from the book "Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia." Way too many identical birds you don't need to know about).
I did learn to scrutinize a bird's feet from that book. Feet are very important when trying to ID a bird that was brown yesterday and is white this afternoon! You can eliminate species by the dozens just by noting whether or not there is a hind toe, how big the toe is (if it exists), and whether the bird has a little bit of webbing between the toes. Partial webbing translates into "semi - palmated"; hence the semipalmated plover and sandpiper. Semipalmated plovers are by far the most common around here right now. They have orange legs, black and orange bills, and a variety of colors elsewhere depending on age, etc.
Only this one doesn't have orange legs. No orange on the bill, either. I have five pictures of this guy; from all angles and facing all directions - and his legs are definitely gray or black and his bill is definitely all black.
So, what the hell kind of bird is this? A juvenile something with dark, really plain feathers and grey legs and black bill is not your average plover.
I refuse to believe this is yet another once-in-a-lifetime bird. I'm ready to toss the images and forget I saw this guy at all. But first I have to scrutinize all 1200 pictures again (yes, 1200 pictures in one day. Pete took about 600 and so did I. That's how we do it.) So, three hours later what do I discover?
I took a picture of a plover just like that one 15 minutes before Pete took his. In this angle and with this light and this camera, I see that the bird's legs were dirty! They are grey in front and orange behind! Even if it is not the same bird, the same thing probably happened to that little guy! No doubt his mouth is dirty, too. Mystery solved!
Damned if those aren't semipalmated feet he got there, too! Can you believe it!
Look at this guy! Doesn't he look exactly like a famous Maestro striding up to the podium? Or a world renowned opera singer heading for the stage?
And sure enough, he starts with a few (discordant) scales to loosen up the pipes . . .
and then breaks into a resounding chorus of "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!" (I don't speak Gull, so I might be wrong about the lyrics.) As you can tell, he is very impressed with himself!
But the audience seems decidedly unimpressed. In fact, they are fleeing the theater!
Every gull for himself!
How beautiful is this? Although I love the Cape, I also love coming home to Framingham. This is my "year round" vacation spot, which happens to be between Route 9 and the Mass Pike. The Foss reservoir is lovely, restful, and peaceful, despite the hum of the highways!
Yesterday was the last day of summer, but it felt like autumn was still months away.
I love it when the water is mirror smooth.
The reflections look like an impressionist's version of the trees above; all of the beauty without any hard edges.
Wildflowers have sprung up everywhere since I was here last.
Tons of poison ivy, poison oak, poison everything! Also, bugs like you would not believe! You need to be covered in bug spray and very careful of touching ANYTHING around here. (Is this someones surefire method of enforcing the "no trespassing" sign, maybe?)
Nature is good for the soul and it doesn't cost a dime. This pastoral scene was photographed from Route 9 during rush hour (5:30 PM on a weeknight). If nature can be found here, you will find it wherever you are, as well.
One of these terns is not like the others.
One (or two) of these terns just doesn't belong!
Can you guess which tern is not like the others?
I hope so cause I don't know how to end this song! So - what are they? Not Roseate Terns (unfortunately for the ornithology students that were desperately seeking Roseate Terns at South Beach that day). Not Fosters Terns or Arctic Terns, either. What else is there?
Black Terns! The very tern my son most wanted to see (but these don't count for him because they are juveniles). Very COOL!! They are juveniles or non breeding adults, so they are not as black as they can be, granted. But they are considered rare around here, and we are very lucky we saw them! There have been other sightings on South Beach throughout the week, so you don't have to take our word that they are there! (Oh, the birds in question are the ones on either end in this picture. If you click the photo, there are notes identifying the Black Terns on each flickr image, too.)
This was not an easy ID, but I had to do so much research that now I'm sure I have it right! (As always, I welcome any opposing views and dissenting opinions, though! I could be making a tremendous blunder!) There is not a lot of info about Black Terns out there. There were NO images that resembled this bird until I tried searching on "juvenile black tern." Then I found images galore! (The bird in the middle here.)
I am very proud of the deductive reasoning that led me to look for juvenile black terns, BTW! I figured that since all terns seem to have white heads as juvies, maybe this little guy was a juvie, too. And voila! Page after page of matching pictures appeared like magic!
Anyway, I'm just tickled pink! Two lifers! A Lesser Black-backed Gull and a bunch of Black Terns all in one day! These two species are both European stragglers, too. Both blown across the sea and ending up on Cape Cod the day I was there with a camera! Better still, they showed up the day Pete was there with a camera! Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this now!
American Oystercatcher. Isn't this the coolest looking bird ever? I can't claim any credit for the awesome photos, though. All these pictures were taken by my son, Pete Wrublewski. We were very lucky to see a whole family of American Oystercatchers at South Beach in Chatham earlier this week.
Seen in real life, the vivid colors are even better than I expected. The bright red-orange eye ring, for example, is not a bit subtle! This adult oystercatcher had a numbered band on each thigh and a metal band on it's ankle. I don't know what the yellow bands mean - I don't even know if this is the male or the female oystercatcher.
This is the other adult; the one without any bands. If one adult wasn't labeled, I wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. They appear to be identical. Both have really large feet, BTW!
They are even stranger looking viewed face first!
The banded bird seemed to stay closer to the two youngsters throughout the day.
Here she (or he) was yelling at Pete for getting too close to the babies. The youngsters begin yelling in response to her cries of alarm. (Note: You can see the metal band clearly in this photo.)
Here they are! Two immature American Oystercatchers up close and personal!
I don't know how old they are, but my copy of "Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia: A Guide to Field Identification (Princeton Field Guides)," says the pale fringe of feathers on the head and neck mean they are "fresh" juveniles.
One of the juvenile American Oystercatchers resting, . . .
scratching an itch, and then . . .
flying away! This is an awesome shot, isn't it? (Congratulations, Pete!) It's the only oystercatcher in flight we saw all day! Evidently they spend a lot of time walking around.
You might think it is yet another Great Black-backed Gull . . .
unless you saw it standing next to Great Black-back Gulls. This gull is clearly smaller than a GBBG; it is paler in color than a GBBG; and it has yellow legs instead of the GBBG's pink legs.
Or, you might assume it is just a Herring Gull . . .
but this gull is smaller, thinner, and darker than a Herring Gull. What is it? It is a Lesser Black-backed Gull! Lesser Black-backed Gulls are "uncommon to rare visitors from Europe," according to my Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (2003). They are "smaller and more slender than Herring," and "much darker gray above than Herring, and usually slightly paler than the Great Black-backed Gull; note yellow legs and mostly black wingtips" (Sibley p188).
Doesn't the Sibley description perfectly describe this bird? I've gone through all my field guides and all over the web trying to prove myself wrong about this, and I couldn't.
It is not a dark Herring Gull or a light GBBG - both of those species have pinkish legs.
It is not remotely similar to a Ring-billed Gull, either. Ring-billed gulls do have yellow legs, but they are much lighter colored and the bill is all wrong.
I read up on Lesser Black-backed gulls before our trip, which is why I was able to recognize the species in the first place. According to Massbird, there were two Lesser Black-backed gulls on South Beach last week, but I never expected to see one myself. My son Pete quickly snapped these pictures - I didn't bother with pictures because I didn't believe it was real! It is a good thing Pete was snapping away, too. It's thanks to him we have pictures of the bird at all. Better still, we have pictures of this gull together with local gulls, so we can compare sizes and colors!
What do you think? Am I right? Or am I missing something big? If so, let me know what you know!