Monday, October 16, 2017

A Few Birds From Huntington Beach State Park

Two weeks ago I had a break from work and decided to head to Huntington Beach State Park, SC, only a short two hours away. Huntington Beach State Park is a phenomenal and well-known birding (and tourist) location along the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina. The park features a long (typically busy) beach and extensive salt marsh and lagoon nestled behind the beach dunes. While birding around the park, I was able to grab a few photos of some of the hundreds and hundreds of birds taking up residence throughout the park that day.

Sanderling Huntington Beach State Park
I first ventured out to the beach, which was rather dead at the time. Other than Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans, the little sandpiper pictured above was the only bird patrolling the beach. This is the Sanderling, an incredibly common shorebird found along the beaches of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts during the winter. A small, but massively charismatic shorebird, the Sanderling is well known for its wave-chasing foraging. When the leftovers of a wave begin to recede after hitting the beach, individuals or flocks of Sanderlings will run out onto the freshly-exposed sand and probe for any sort of invertebrate that the wave either uncovered or left stranded on the sand. As the next wave comes rushing in, the Sanderling will quickly dart away from the water. This running back and forth as the waves come in and out is rather entertaining to watch. And just a random fun fact: The Sanderling recently garnered non-birder fame after being the focus of the Pixar Animation short "Piper," which debuted in 2016 before Finding Dory 2. Although the short strays from the biology a tad for artistic sake, it's a beautifully animated, and fun, short film. Here's a link to watch the 6-minute short: "Piper"

Great Egret South Carolina
I left the beach and headed to the salt marsh, and the bird diversity instantly picked up. Patrolling the low-tide waters in the salt marsh were several wading birds, including this Great Egret. The Great Egret is a common species throughout much of the east, especially along the coast. Like other wading birds, the Great Egret is never found far from water, whether it be salt marshes, rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, or the like. The Great Egret is the largest of the egrets—an "egret" is nothing more than a common name given to herons which happen to be whitein the United States. Standing at over 3 feet tall, the Great Egret is also the second tallest of the herons in the US, only second to the Great Blue Heron.

Great Egret Neck
A Great Egret stretches out his neck to get a better view of the water.
Fish are the preferred food for the Great Egret. The lanky Great Egret spends most of its time slowly and carefully moving through the water, looking for fish swimming about. When a potential meal is spotted, the Great Egret will pull its long neck back into a compacted "S" shape and take aim. Their long neck essentially acts as a spring. When the egret is ready, it will shoot its neck and beak forward into the water, spearing the fish. Once the fish is speared, the Great Egret will deftly maneuver the fish with its beak in order to swallow it whole. 

Double-Crested Cormorant
Hanging out on a mudflat near the Great Egret were several Double-Crested Cormorants. The Double-Crested Cormorant can be found throughout pretty much all of the US at some point during the year, and the coast of South Carolina is one of their overwintering grounds. The Double-Crested Cormorant is another fish-eating and water-loving bird. Like other cormorants, the Double-Crested Cormorant is a diving bird, and they typically dive to depths up to 25 feet in order find, chase, and catch fish. You might also see individuals of this species sitting somewhere with their wings spread as they face the Sun. They do this in order to dry their feathers after a dive. Unlike most water-dwelling birds, the structure of a cormorant's feathers make it to where they do not shed water. This is an adaptation which allows cormorants to more easily dive, but it comes at a cost. After a Double-Crested Cormorant dives, its feathers are soaked. Dripping wet feathers make it hard to fly, so the cormorant is forced to stand in the Sun and let its feathers air dry if it wants to fly to another location.

Birding at Huntington Beach State Park
The highlight of the day was a much-awaited lifer, the Roseate Spoonbill (two of which are pictured in the foreground). I'll get to the Spoonbills in a moment. First, let's talk about that bald-faced bird in the back.

Wood Stork Huntington Beach State Park
Meet the Wood Stork. The Wood Stork is a resident of the marshes and swamps of the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coasts here in the US, but is also found throughout Central and South America. Although you wouldn't guess it when visiting Huntington Beach State Park—where there can be hundreds and hundreds of Wood Storks at a time—the Wood Stork is actually Federally Threatened in the United States. Habitat degradation, invasive species, disruptions to the historical food web, and other factors led to the decrease of the population here in the United States during the 1900's. Originally listed as Federally Endangered, Wood Stork populations have been on a slight rebound over the past decade or so, prompting the listing to be moved down to "Threatened" in 2014. A good sign for now, but the species is by no means out of trouble.

Roseate Spoonbill Huntington Beach State Park
As I mentioned, the highlight of the day personally were the Roseate Spoonbills. I've been wanting to see this strange wader ever since I was a young kid flipping through my Sibley's field guide, and I finally got my chance! As becomes quite obvious upon seeing one, their name stems from their pinkish color and their spatulate bill. They owe their pinkish color to their diet, much in the way flamingos do. Roseate Spoonbills feed on shrimp and other organisms which contain a type of pigment called Canthaxanthin. This pigment is reddish-pink in color. As a Roseate Spoonbill consumes more and more Canthaxanthin, it sequesters the pigment in its feathers, giving its plumage a pink coloration. This also means that the intensity of pink and the exact hue can is different from individual to individual, and location to location, depending on the available food and the individual's specific diet.

Roseate Spoonbill Foraging
Of course, the most attention-grabbing feature of the Roseate Spoonbill is its spatulate, i.e. spoon-like, bill. The widened-tip of their bill is actually a foraging adaptation. When the Roseate Spoonbill feeds, it waves its bill back and forth through the water with its mouth slightly open. The widened tip of the bill allows the Spoonbill to better grab onto various prey items—fish, crustaceans, worms, etc.—as the beak offers more surface area. Imagine that you had to catch an insect that was moving around quickly. Would you rather use two chopsticks to catch the insect, or two large spatulas? The spatulas would be much more effective at grabbing the insect, for the same reason that the Spoonbill's beak is better than a sharp, pointed beak.

American Alligator Huntington Beach State Park
Of course, birds weren't the only reptilians (as birds are nothing more than an offshoot of dinosaurs) patrolling the waters for food. Huntington Beach State Park is also extremely well known for its American Alligator population, and I saw around a dozen that day either swimming in the lagoon or basking on the land. Several people regaled me with a story of earlier in the day, when a particularly large Alligator shut down traffic as it crossed the main road. Apparently this is a rather common occurrence at the park, and one that I would love to see!

My new job has kept me busy, and it's been difficult to find time to blog. I've got some more downtime this month, so hopefully I will be able to find time to photograph some things and pump out a few blog posts. Thanks for reading!