Monday, February 23, 2009

Mystery Shorebird: Knot or Not?

While spending a morning last week on the beach on Sanibel Island, Florida, I was seeing the usual shorebird suspects: willets, sanderlings, and a few ruddy turnstones. Then a flock of chunky birds dropped in, settling among a resting mixed flock of terns and gulls. My first pre-bins guess was dunlin, but when I got them in my binocs I noticed that they were bigger than dunlin, plumper looking, and lacked the dunlin's longer decurved bills. They settled down and immediately tucked their bills under their wings to rest. Could they be tired migrants?

These birds were in drab winter plumage, with uniformly gray-brown backs. They had a medium-length bill. A fair amount of scalloping was on the breast and flanks and the legs were dull yellow and relatively short. There was the hint of an eyebrow and a darkish cap.

This was adding up to be a pretty neat species. Finally the snoozing birds raised their heads and and I felt solid in identifying them as red knots. This is one of our most imperiled shorebird species. Red knots winter along the southern coasts of the U.S. We almost never see this species in Ohio.

I've seen red knots many times before—usually along the Delaware Bay where they stop in spring migration to feast on the bountiful eggs of horseshoe crabs. Nature in its infinite wisdom and perfect timing, aligned the nesting of horseshoe crabs, which come to shore to deposit their eggs by the millions in spring, with the passage of migrant shorebirds—especially the red knot. The knots fatten up on the tiny green eggs and put on fat necessary to fuel their remaining journey to the northernmost sliver of the North American continent to nest.

The fishing industry in the East has been over-harvesting horseshoe crabs to use as bait. The resulting reduction in nesting horseshoe crabs has drastically reduced the primary migration food source for the red knot. And this has affected the red knot population, which has dropped more than 50 percent since the 1980s.

It was a privilege to see this small flock of red knots, as yet unbanded, spending the winter here on this beautiful beach. I wished them well in their season of travel to come.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Avocado Falcons

One of the very special birds that was hanging around Bosque del Apache NWR last week and for several week prior was an aplomado falcon. Aplomado is a Spanish word meaning lead-colored--referring to the bird's gray coloration. What you really notice about the bird is not the gray back, but the orange chest and boldly marked head.

Actually there were at least TWO of these rare, endangered birds on the refuge and I got to see both of them just an hour apart on the same day. Radio contact with birders still watching the other falcon confirmed the presence of two birds.

My son (and namesake) Liam, who was along for one of the field trips, asked why we were so excited. I pointed out the bird and said, "THAT'S a rare bird called an aplomado falcon!" Liam replied: "Oh. . . . What's an avocado falcon?" By the glint in his eye I could tell he was pulling his old man's leg.

These aplomados are from a captive breeding program that is trying to re-establish the population in the desert Southwest. Everyone was all abuzz about seeing these lanky falcons and a few of the harder-core birders were wondering if they were "countable" or not since they or their parents were once held in captivity. The birds had bands on the legs but seemed otherwise wild and well adjusted. We watched them eat dragonflies and the occasional small mammal or bird.

It was great to show the birds to a variety of people in our various birding trips. I'd seen the species twice before--both times at Laguna Atascosa NWR in South Texas where another aplomado hacking program has had great success over the years. But these looks at Bosque were better, with more cooperative birds.

I've got a lot more posts from NM to share. The only problema is that I still have to write them! In the meantime, here are a few of my aplomado images--all of these are digiscoped from a great distance.

The falcon stretching in the late-afternoon sun.

Despite my photography skills you can actually see the falcon's head pattern in this image.

A harrier decided to harass the aplomado.

To see how a pro digiscoper does it, visit Jeff Bouton's Leica Birding Blog and check out his pix of the aplomado falcon. I still have to fetch some of my digital camera images and if I have anything aplomadoish worth sharing, Ill certainly do so.

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