A Shore Thing: A Day For the Birds

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9034acsThe sun rises on a new day, setting the sea aflame in glittering gold. This beauty is of no consequence to a Herring Gull. Neither is the turbulent surf. Just another day at the office.

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9062acsTaking wing and then diving, he expertly snatches breakfast on the go.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9281acsOut on the marsh, Great Egrets congregate. Three stand watch while others attend to their beauty routine. Behind them, Snowy Egrets look for a midmorning snack.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9348acsRuffled by the wind but not the bridge traffic in the distance, a Great Blue Heron surveys a wide expanse of saltmarsh cordgrass.

160926_nj-middle-thoroughfare-kayak_9652adsOn the mudflats, Yellowlegs forage.

Greater Yellowlegs? Lesser Yellowlegs? Or one of each? Who’s to say?

(Yellowlegs identification is a challenge. For the record, I think these are Greater Yellowlegs. At least the one on the left with the long bill. But I could be wrong.)

160928_nj-strathmere-point-birds_9566acsThe beach is a ballroom brimming with tuxedoed birds. Black and white with orange-red accents, these Black Skimmers (front) and American Oystercatchers (rear) await the next dance.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9376acsMy, what big eyes you have, grandmother! The American Oystercatcher enhances its clownlike appearance with oversized pink feet and a long red bill.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9793acsAhhh, lunch! Oysters are not on the menu today, but crabs are. This Oystercatcher carries his entrée into a nearby puddle. Apparently, it’s considered good manners to wash one’s food before one eats it.

How to tell these birds apart? The American Oystercatcher has an all-black head, red bill, and those marvelous red-rimmed golden eyes. The Black Skimmer in the background is a stockier bird with a white chin and unremarkable dark eyes.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9761acsBut then there’s that bill. Razor thin, with a lower bill much longer than the top. Skimmers feed by flying over the water, bill open and lower mandible cutting through the surface. The bill snaps shut as soon as it touches a fish. Gotcha!

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_0350acsAfter lunch, it’s time for preening. An American Oystercatcher goes to great lengths to keep those feathers clean.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9917acsAlso a contortionist, the Black Skimmer turns upside down to get those hard to reach spots.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9491acsThere go the Skimmers. Evening is the time for them to feed along the ocean’s edge, knifing their bills through the calm water in search of fish.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8353acsJoining the Skimmers on this lovely evening are the Sanderlings. These small shorebirds chase retreating waves down the beach, while probing for tiny invertebrates and crustaceans.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8485acsOnly to flee from the incoming wave in a blur of constant motion. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

…in the sunset glow of another fine day at the beach.

Storm Morning

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2878acsSometimes a day at the beach isn’t “a Day at the Beach”…

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2886acsFor two days the Jersey Shore was buffeted by high winds and draped with ominous gray clouds. The heavy rains came at night.

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2870acs140924_OC Stormy Beach_2816acsGreat Black-backed Gulls have the bulk to cope with the wind. The tiny Sanderlings were blown this way and that.

140924_OC Stormy Beach Seafoam_2774aSea foam at the water’s edge jiggled in its best Jell-o impression, trembling violently before breaking loose to dance up the beach. Small dollops skimmed just above the sand’s surface like pucks on an air hockey table.

FUN FACT: A scientifically-minded friend saw sea foam and burdened it with the moniker of “surfactant”. Unromantic, but partially correct. Foam is formed of air, water and a surfactant. Surfactants are compounds that reduce the surface tension of water, allowing air bubbles to form. Each surfactant molecule has a hydrophobic (water-repellent) end and a hydrophilic (water-loving) end. In a group, they line up in such a way that a thin layer of water is between the hydrophilic ends and takes the shape of a sphere – a bubble. Put lots of bubbles together, throw in wind-agitated wave action, and you’ve got foam.

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2885acsSurfactants can be man-made, like fertilizers, emulsifiers and detergents; that’s why soap lathers into bubbles when you take a bath. In the ocean, the surfactants are usually dissolved organic matter such as algae, seaweed, and other tiny marine organisms. That organic matter is a vital part of the marine food web that would otherwise go unnoticed. In a way, sea foam is microscopic life made visible in quivering, dancing morsels of bubbles.

A Tempestuous Tanka
Or, The Downside of Scientific Correctness

Tempest-tossed waves crash
Wind-blown surfactant dances
‘Neath scudding gray skies.
Surfactant? No! On my beach,
Wind-blown sea-foam dances by.

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2696acs A creamy mist hovered inches above the ground. Creamy, by appearance. The sensation was of being pelted with a thousand stinging little grains of sand.

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2888acs…Which didn’t dissuade these two beach goers. There’s always someone who will sit on the beach, no matter what the weather.

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2899acsA bad day at the beach is better than a good day anywhere else!

140924_OC Stormy Beach_2679acs

Crab Dance

Forsythe NWR Crab_6482a Have you ever noticed something for the first time, and after that you see it everywhere? For me, this was the summer of the Fiddler Crab. Why I’d never noticed them before escapes me, but after my first encounter with a few at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, I saw them just about everywhere I went. Usually in large numbers!

Fiddler crabs are small crabs that live in salt-water and brackish water marshes, beaches and mudflats. They are colonial and social critters that are active during the day.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2629aThe male crabs are particularly odd-looking because one of their front claws is grossly enlarged. It’s used to court females and engage in ritualized combat with other males. In tai chi, we have a move that looks just like this!

FUN FACT: Fiddler crabs molt their shells as they grow. If a male loses his large claw, he will grow a new one during the next molt, on the opposite side of his body. The movements of his small claw against the large one resemble someone playing a fiddle, hence the name.

Crab Collage 1Fiddlers eat by scooping up mud or sand (left), removing algae and other organic material, and then returning the mud in the form of a pellet (right). Females like this one rapidly alternate between both claws as they feed. A male crab’s large claw is useless to eat with, so he has to eat one-handed.

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4642a Here is a fiddler crab near her burrow, with sand pellets to the side. They dig their burrows one pellet at a time, carrying it under their body as much as five feet away before returning to fetch another pellet. These burrows can be as deep as two feet! That’s a lot of work for an inch long crab.

Cape May Skimmer Peep_6854aThe marsh bank below this Semipalmated Sandpiper is riddled with crab holes. The burrows are important shelters from not only predators, but the daily ebb and flow of the tides. Fiddler crabs have biological clocks synchronized to the tides, and retreat to the burrows when high tide approaches, plugging the entrance with mud.

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4621aThe smaller crab here approached this larger female very tentatively, and then tried to scurry past her. Only to have the large female scurry right alongside. They moved in parallel like that for quite some way. Was this a territorial dispute? Is the small crab a juvenile? Some of life’s little mysteries we’ll never solve!

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4533aIt’s a big world out there for a little crab. They have a lot of predators. Threats can come from larger crabs like the marsh crab, diamondback terrapins, and even mink and raccoons. Then there are the dangerous birds, like Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, terns, and gulls.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2528 Gull and CrabSometimes the crab fights back. I’m not sure who’s captured who!

OC Hermit Crab_091753a Here’s a different sort of crab – a flat-clawed hermit crab. Hermit crabs are soft-bodied, and must find someone else’s shell to live in, typically abandoned sea snail shells. I collect a type of moon shell known as a shark’s eye. Usually they’re empty, but I was delighted to find someone at home in this one! I couldn’t coax him out to play, though. Hermits are usually nocturnal, so probably he’d have rather been napping. (It makes me cringe to admit it, but these are cell phone photos. It was all I had with me at the time.)

FUN FACT: Hermit crabs need to replace their shells as they outgrow them. Crabs like to shop for new shells, trying various ones on for size. Sometimes this leads to fights, or a number of crabs ganging up on one whose home they covet. Sometimes they form a “vacancy chain”. A new shell in the neighborhood will draw a crowd of hermit crabs. The largest crab in the group will move into it, leaving his shell behind. That will be taken by the next largest crab, leaving his shell to the third largest, and so on down the line!

OC Hermit Crab_092723Take time to look at the little things in life. You never know what you might find!

Coming up: Looking for Fall