SUN PHOTO/LAURIE KROSNEY
A royal tern assumes a mating stance.
By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer
One sure sign of the coming winter is the annual migration of birds from northern climates to the Island’s beaches. Some are here only briefly as they head further south. Some come and stay with us until spring.
"You see different birds here in the winter," said John DeFazio, a life-long bird watcher. "Some of the ones that stay all year have different plumage in the winter."
Gulls are our most common shorebird and there are several different species here. The laughing gull, probably the most abundant bird on our shores, is one that changes plumage. In summer, it has a distinctive black head with white markings around its eyes. This time of year, its head is mostly white with a little bit of gray.
At this time of year, we also see the ring-bill gull with its yellow legs and the distinctive black ring around the pointed end of its beak. Some ring-bills come only for the winter, but a few stay year-round.
Lately, there’ve been flocks of red knots. They fly here non-stop from the Arctic Circle. Most are just here briefly before flying on to their winter habitat in Venezuela.
"They’re an interesting bird," said Nancy Douglas, Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission’s bird expert. "They fly straight through over the course of weeks. They lose more than 30 percent of their body weight and then stop here just briefly to put on weight and get ready for the rest of their flight."
Red knots are larger than most short-legged shore birds. You’ll usually see them in groups right at the line where the water meets the shore.
Douglas said red knots, which have a reddish underside during their summer breeding season, have to feed almost non-stop while they’re here.
"They have to replenish the calories they lost in flight," she said. "They’re very stressed when people interrupt them."
Douglas suggests that beach walkers of the human kind leave the surf line and walk around feeding birds.
"They only have a little time to feed, and if everyone keeps interrupting them, they can’t take in enough nourishment," she said.
Our shores are also home to a variety of plovers in winter. We see a few semi-palmated plovers, which are smallish brown birds with black bands around their necks and breasts and with just a little black on their heads. You might see them anytime from late August through April when they head north to breed.
You also might see a Wilson’s plover with a longer and heavier black beak than you see on other plovers. Black-bellied plovers are here in winter as well. They are quite common. You can tell them by the faint dark band that comes across from their shoulders around to their neck. The band doesn’t meet in the middle.
Look also for the ruddy turnstones. They have reddish legs. They’re another Arctic breeder that visits in the winter. We see them in their non-breeding plumage with their brown chest patches and reddish legs. Ruddy turnstones have a reddish brown plumage in breeding season. You’ll see them turning over every stone in sight as they search for food.
Look for skimmers in their juvenile and adult plumage as well as all the different egrets and herons. We see snowy egrets, greater egrets and great blue herons at the shore and night herons and little green herons on the bay. A good bird spot on the bay is Coquina Bay Walk at the south end of the Island.
Both libraries have a great selection of bird books. DeFazio especially recommends “Sibley’s Guide to North American Birds,” and small laminated charts, which you can slip into your pocket while strolling the beach, are available in many Island shops.