“The American Oystercatcher”

Baby Oystercatchers, balls of ivory and beige fluff balancing on tall and tan, skinny but steady legs, look very little like their strikingly handsome, black and white parents who sport long, bright red-orange bills and dull pink legs. The youngsters do have a hint of orange coloring close to their mouths, which tells you where that physical feature is heading in about sixty days. Locals describe the American Oystercatcher as the most recognizable of all North Carolina shorebirds and say that they can be seen year-round on our coast. The beach is their home. They live, eat, colonize, socialize, breed, nest and raise their children on the sand. These poor birds face so many obstacles in life, mainly because their open habitat is so commonly disturbed by people, dogs, opportunistic predators, vehicles and weather. Recently, two infant Oystercatchers were brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because a vehicle driving on the beach rolled over an AO nest. Unfortunately, a couple siblings did not make it, but two were in very good condition. There was no talk of the AO parents being involved in the tragedy, so the staff at the shelter believed they were still out there looking for their babies. After examining the tiny Oystercatchers for injuries and determining their wellness, the decision was made to feed them healthy vittles and return them to a safe zone on the beach close to their nesting site, so their parents could find them. That plan was carried out. With an OWLS staff member monitoring the “reunite,” they were placed higher on the beach in the tall grasses and from a distance the wait began. It wasn’t long before the chicks were calling with a series of conspicuous shrill, piping whistles that sound like “kleeep” or “wiip,” and the parents came running to find them. Success! The parents seemed relieved and extremely content to have their children back. We wish it could have been all of them. American Oystercatchers are large, obvious and noisy, plover-like birds, with strong bills they use for smashing or prying open bivalve mollusks, which is their favorite food. Despite being called an oystercatcher, they actually eat mussels more often than oysters. Interesting to note is their original name “Sea Pie,” before someone witnessed them eating oysters, was changed to oystercatcher in the mid 1700’s. In addition to mussels and oysters, they supplement their diet with other crustaceans, fish, crabs, starfish, worms and insects. Oystercatchers nest on beaches, natural islands off shore and dredged-sand islands and are often the most common breeder in those locations. Oystercatchers face many threats, but they have adapted to survive challenges that nature sends their way. It’s coexistence with humans in salt marshes and dunes areas that threatens them more than weather and even predators such as gulls, crows, raptors and the most persistent and devastating predators, raccoons. Their survival ultimately depends upon mitigating factors such as the human’s recreational beach use which includes moving vehicles, dog accompaniment, garbage left behind, fishing gear litter, habitat loss due to erosion or construction in the area that affects any rise in sea level which will cause their nest to be over-washed. Despite the perils of beach nesting, instinctually, they still do. Their most popular choice of breeding grounds is along Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina coasts, and they commonly nest on high, sandy sites such as dunes, but also in low, flat sandy areas with good cover. Adult Oystercatchers resemble folk dance cloggers as they use their little feet to scrape out four or five 8” across and 2 1/2” deep shallow depressions in the sand, then they choose the one that suits their needs and line it with shells and other beach materials. The adult female lays 2 to 4 brown speckled, gray eggs in the nest where incubation takes 24 to 28 days. After hatching, the babies chill in the nest for a day, but by day two they are on their feet and following Mom & Dad all over the beach while their parents feed them on the go. The youngsters watch their parents closely so they will know within weeks how to jab their bill into the shell of a mollusk to snip the strong muscle that clamps the shell closed, however their beak will not be strong enough to successfully complete that task for at least two months. This behavior is also a risky maneuver because a mussel or oyster can clamp down on the oystercatcher’s bill and hold the bird in place until the tide comes in. That is not good and can be fatal for the bird. The young ones are dependent upon their parents for up to six months, and it will be three years before they are sexually mature enough to breed. The American Oystercatcher is a shy bird that is sensitive to human disturbance and habitat degradation whether human or nature induced. Although populations of American Oystercatchers are low, (at last count there were only about 11,000 on the east coast of the United States) you will not find it protected on the official endangered species list. They are only listed as a species of concern in several states, especially along the coast, and Audubon identifies them as a climate threatened bird. The longevity record on the books for an oystercatcher is “40 years, one month and two days.” Now that is specific! The reason they can be so specific wraps around the knowledge that the chick was ringed in 1970 and found in the same area where it was ringed during 2010. That was one smart, tough and very lucky little Oystercatcher!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“COLD TOES” for Pelicans!!

A cold snap is a comin’! Temperatures are scheduled to drop over the next few weeks, even to the teens, and bad things happen to wildlife when Eastern North Carolina gets that cold. Food will become scarce and frostbite can occur, mainly with our Brown Pelican population. We have seen pelican frostbite cases admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC over the years and sometimes in such great numbers that there’s hardly enough room to house them all! The Brown Pelican is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It’s a very big seabird found on the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon in South America. Most people who reside in North Carolina and tourists who visit are very familiar with pelicans. These large fisher-birds have habituated with humans, so we see them everywhere along our beach fronts, docks, fishing areas and find them ever present in our views at waterfront restaurants.The Brown Pelican is known for its oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are in fact brown with a lighter beige underbelly, but a mature Brown Pelican’s coloring is vastly different. The adult will have a white neck and head with a yellow crest and its body is almost black with dark gray feathers. Flying units of pelicans, young and old, glide with seemingly little effort above the surf along coasts, rising and falling with the graceful movement of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up in their pouch. We bird watchers enjoy the purposeful antics of this comically elegant bird. With coldness looming, wildlife rehabilitators know that unfortunately, pelicans will do what they generally do in freezing temperatures and that is, nothing. They will stay out of the water and sit very still as they try to deal with the frigid and frosty weather nature has dealt them, which we know is not good to ward off the condition of frostbite. Frostbite is simply tissue damage caused by freezing, so keeping circulation going is one of the keys to prevention. The first body parts affected by decreased blood flow when exposed to extreme cold are those furthest away from your core, pelican or human. With pelicans, the cold will attack its toes and gular pouch first. Frostbite can happen very quickly in severely frigid weather; possibly within five minutes! Pelicans do not have the preventative luxury of layering its clothing or feathering for that matter, to protect the most vulnerable areas of their body from frostbite and no one is offering them a hot cup of tea or cocoa. Frostbite generally affects the top layers of the skin, but when it becomes more advanced, the damage will extend through the muscles and to the bones. When Pelicans are admitted to the shelter with frostbite, it’s because they are found disoriented, unable to walk due to pain in their feet, unable to fish and weak from starvation. Rehabilitating pelicans is a costly situation anytime but when frostbite is present they will require medications, surgical procedures to remove necrotic tissue or bone caused by frostbite and loads of fish for the starving and recovering birds whose rehabilitation stay at the shelter will correlate with the extensiveness of their frostbite. Pelicans can still be released and survive in the wild if their loss is only some webbing between toes or partial toe amputation, but loss of a foot, leg or pouch meets with a grim outcome. At the wildlife shelter we offer our frostbite patients treatment and care to include continuous, never ending clean up, plenty of food and medications they need and the necessary time to heal while we monitor their behaviors, returning skills and potential for a successful release. Most pelicans in our care are easy to get along with for they are friendly, social birds. They seem to be appreciative of the warm, safe haven we provide and the easy food. However, occasionally, we’ll get a pelican with a really bad attitude and a case of “snap-itis,” so we stay clear of that wild bill flailing in the air, because it can pinch pretty darn hard if it catches a human leg or arm, but those are few and far between. Pelicans aren’t the only wildlife who suffer from frostbite when a freeze hits our area. Virginia Opossums are also occasionally affected because they have bare feet and a bare tail. Frostbite is always bad no matter the victim, but most opossums seem to be resourceful enough to find a warmer place to hunker down and ride out the cold than our totally exposed Pelicans. Pelicans can live to be in their forties, which is quite the longevity for an animal in the wild, and we want to help those damaged by frostbite to recover and get back out there to live that potentially long life. So, if you see pelicans staying in one spot too long after an icy, cold snap, there could be some “Cold Toes” going on that require treatment. Our doors are wide open to receive them!!

Stay warm out there and best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Timberdoodles!”

A Timberdoodle may sound more like one of Santa’s Christmas Elves, but it’s actually one of many nicknames for a unique looking bird called an American Woodcock.  Although not a common admission to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we recently had a Timberdoodle delivered to our care because the chunky little bird suffered head trauma, but we’re not sure how it happened.  The American Woodcock, a member of the Sandpiper family, is a stout shorebird with a plump body, short legs, a large round head and a long, straight prehensile bill.  Adults are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh 5 to 8 ounces, with females considerably larger than males. They have very short tails which gives them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight.  Their wings are broad and rounded compared to other shorebirds.  The American Woodcock, although it is indeed a shorebird, lives in and around young forests rather than along bodies of water.   They camouflage well in  wooded environments because their color pattern is a mix of brown, black, buff and gray, so they spend most of their time hidden in fields and on the forest floor. Their underparts are buff to a tinge of dark orange.  Their brownish gray to reddish brown feet and toes are small and not considered strong body parts.  What is strong is their long bill that is used to probe the soil to find their favorite food, earthworms.  This prehensile, 2 ½ to almost 3 inches, bill not only pokes into the earth, but an amazing bone and muscle collaboration allows the bird to open and close the tip of its bill while the bill is underground. The underside of the bill and the American Woodcock’s tongue are both rough-surfaced enough to grasp slick and slimy prey such as a juicy worm or other invertebrates. Delectable items in the Timberdoodle’s diet also include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles and ants. To initiate the hunt for worms or insects, they stomp their bony feet on the ground to startle the prey into movement the bird can detect before penetrating the ground with their bill in efforts to capture whatever is on the run.  They also eat a small amount of plants, mainly seeds and are most food active at dawn and dusk. The Woodcock’s eyes are large and located high in their head.  Although they don’t rely on their eyes to hunt, their immediate visual field is said to be the largest of any bird; 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically.  American Woodcocks are usually found much further north, to include Canada, rather than the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they do migrate as far south as the Gulf Coast States before the harshness of a northern winter. The highest concentrations of Night Partridges (another of the many nicknames for the American Woodcock), after winter migration, according to the annual ‘Christmas Bird Count,’ are found in northern Alabama.  Although, they are occasionally sighted, even during Spring breeding season, in the western mountainous areas of North Carolina. The American Woodcock is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America.  Woodcocks migrate at night and fly at low altitudes in small, loose flocks.  Their flight speed has been clocked at 16 to 28 mph, however, Timberdoodles are also known to fly at the slowest speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 mph!  Both October and late February migrations, where they visually follow coastlines and river valleys, are viewed as leisurely for American Woodcocks compared to the rapid and more direct migrations of most other birds. During breeding season, the male Woodcock sings a series of ground calls and performs high spiraling, zigzagging and banking flights at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights while attempting to woo a mate (or many mates). They will also bob and bow while walking very stiff-legged with wings outstretched toward a female on the ground.  After a Woodcock hen is impressed by all that showy display and chooses her fella, she uses leaves and twigs to encircle a shallow depression on the ground to make a comfy home for her one to four eggs.  Incubation takes 20 to 22 days. Hatchlings are precocial, which means they are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of birth much like chickens, but Mom will feed them and teach them to hunt. The young will be probing for worms within a few days of hatching. It’s fortunate that, although fluffy, the young are born with their well-camouflaged coloring enabling them to blend into their surroundings, which becomes essential when predators, such as raccoons, raptors or humans, make the scene. Some observers state they have witnessed frightened youngsters clinging to their Mother’s body as she flies them away from danger.  Young Bogsuckers (yet another nickname for American Woodcocks) will make short flights within two weeks of birth, can demonstrate excellent aerial maneuvers at three weeks and are ready to move on independently after five weeks of Momma’s care. The male is not monogamous and will mate with numerous females.  Male American Woodcocks do not help to select a nest site, incubate eggs or feed and rear the young.  However, the male will continue to entertain the female with his dazzling courtship rituals for as long as four months beyond hatch day.  This chunky and most interesting shorebird suffers loss of habitat due to forest maturation and urban development, but the American Woodcock does adapt better in deforestation situations than other ground dwelling birds do.  Strides in conservation efforts since the 1960’s, especially the “American Woodcock Conservation Plan” which protects, renews and creates habitat, have helped maintain Hokumpoke or Brush Snipe (still other nicknames!) populations in North America so they haven’t moved onto the wildlife endangered list, but are considered within “species of greatest conservation need.” Groups care so much about the Timberdoodle that as recently as October 2017, the 11th American Woodcock Symposium was held in Michigan and focused on steadfastly maintaining this bird. It’s nice to know that probably due to their efforts, the estimated population of the American Woodcock is 5 million, so it does rank as the most common Sandpiper on the continent of North America, and it’s also nice to know that people are so impressed when they see an American Woodcock that they immediately come up with a nickname for this little, fat body bird with the very long, skinny bill that looks so unusual and out of place.  The maximum lifespan of a Timberdoodle in the wild has been recorded at eight years, so they are out there! If you are scouting for one, look for them in young forests, forest edges, old farming fields and wet meadows, AND look low!  The are definitely worth seeing!

Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Herring Gulls, Pirates or Loafers?”

Adult Herring Gulls are quite common on our coast, and they make themselves comfortable everywhere they choose to be; patrolling shorelines, hanging out in parking lots, the marsh, fish processing plants, docks, rooftops, picnic areas, newly plowed acreage, athletic fields, following whales and dolphins at sea (hoping to snatch small prey driven to the water’s surface), hovering above fishing boats, landfills and even airport runways. However, we hardly ever if never see their babies because they generally nest off shore in areas known to be human and predator free! So, it was quite the surprise when a boater on vacation showed up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently carrying an infant Herring Gull. During the boater’s day on the water, he hauled onto an island’s shore to explore and came across a nest in the sand occupied by the little HGull and unfortunately, two deceased siblings. His boating party decided to stay away from the nest and observe for a while to see if Herring parents were still tending to it. One of the party knew that with seabirds one parent is always at the nest until the chicks are at least a month old. So, after a few hours of waiting, watching and seeing no adults return to the nest, the decision was made to take the chick and find a wildlife rehabilitator to ensure the infant’s best chance at survival. It is believed that due to the intact condition of the two infants that passed, no predators were involved and possibly something had happened to the Herring Gull parents. Our report on the admitted baby Herring Gull is extremely favorable, for he is doing very well. He is comfy in his warm brooder, eating mud minnows on his own and going for swims in his makeshift ocean (the laundry room sink). Herring Gulls, one of the most familiar of gulls, are often referred to as “Seagulls,” when in fact, every gull species carries its own name and identification. As an infant, the chick is a gray-tan and spotted brown, fluff ball with a white tipped black beak and tan legs. Young Herrings take four years to reach full adult plumage and go through several plumage stages that vary in appearance. That is why Herring Gulls are misidentified so often. They tend to look like different gulls rather than one in the same due to their lengthy physical maturity process. First-winter birds are gray-brown with a dark tail, a brown rump with dark bars, dark outer primaries and pale inner primaries, dark eyes, and a dark bill, which usually develops a paler base through the winter. The head is often lighter in color than the body. Second-winter birds typically have pale eyes, lighter bill with black tip, pale head and begin to show gray feathers on the back. Third-winter birds are closer to adults but still have some black on the bill and brown on the body and wings and have a black band on the tail, until they finally become the statuesque, white with gray and black wings and heavily built large gull they are meant to be. They are over two feet in length and weigh between 2 to 3.6 pounds, depending on whether they are male or female. Males run heavier. Herring Gulls are larger than Ringed-billed and Laughing Gulls, but not as big as the Great Black-backed Gull. The Herring Gull’s wingspan is 47 to 61 inches. Their physically mature head and chest are white, back is gray with black wing tips adorned with white dots called mirrors. Their legs are pink, sturdy and sport webbed feet, making them equally adept at swimming, walking on land and flying. Their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible, and that red spot plays an important role when feeding young. The chick will tap on the spot with its bill to let the parent know it’s hungry. This is an innate “fixed action pattern,” so, baby Herring Gulls will peck at any red dot! The eyes of a mature Herring Gull are bright to medium yellow, with a yellow or orange ring around each eye, and those eyes can scope out the tiniest morsel of food from quite a distance. A Herring Gull can be quite loud with a variety of cries and calls that are very high pitched. They are communicators who talk to each other during courtship, to emit warnings, while assigning territory and who also seem to be making noise just for the sake of making noise, but what do WE know since we don’t speak the language?!? Adult Herring Gulls will eat just about anything (and that might also be what they’re squawking about). They are scavenging, opportunistic feeders and effective, lethal hunters.  Because their habitat is always close to water sources, marine invertebrates such as mussels, crabs, urchins, clams, squid, crayfish, as well as fish and discarded fish offal are definitely on the menu, but let’s not leave out insects, berries, worms, other birds’ eggs or chicks, cottontails, carrion and human litter or garbage. They are as smart as a Crow, using tools to hunt such as spreading bread crumbs on the water to lure fish and dropping shellfish on rocks to break them open. They are also very aggressive and will pirate food from another bird’s take or catch! To wash it all down, they prefer fresh water, but will drink seawater if they must. The special glands above their eyes excrete excess salt from seawater that would dangerously dehydrate any other animals, including humans. Considerable time between feedings is spent bathing, preening and “loafing.” Loafing is a term animal behaviorists use to describe a bird that isn’t doing much of anything, and most seabirds spend many long hours loafing. Pairing, that remains monogamous, occurs during April and May, and both male and female are involved in nest construction. They nest in 10 to 15” wide depressions, with smaller depressions within the nest to hold each egg in place, on secluded shores, or they may choose to wedge nests into rocky crevices on isolated islands. The nest is lined with vegetation, feathers, litter and usually hidden from predators and protected from high winds behind a large rock, log or bush. One to three brown speckled buff or greenish eggs are laid and incubated for approximately 32 days. Herring Gulls lay heavy, large eggs and have the highest hatching success of all gulls. Youngsters are born eyes open, fluffy with brown spots and able to move about the nesting area within a few hours. They fledge at 6-7 weeks but continue to be fed by their parents until they are six months old. An interesting factoid regarding young Herring Gulls is that they are known to pant like a dog to cool off, especially if their parents have nested in direct sun, because their mouth lining is their best means of shedding heat. The longest living Herring Gull claims the record of 32 years of age. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, have stepped into the parent role for our little Herring Gull and will help him grow, get stronger and become capable. When he is tall, mottled gray-brown, hunting and flying he will join his place as one of many in a flock of North Carolina Herring Gulls to enjoy many “bird-days,” and hopefully, break the current longevity record!

Best Always and hope you are having a Spectacular Summer!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Wintering Scoters”

a_blog_malescoterflightThere are so many species of duck that belong to the Anatidae family of birds; Dabbling Ducks, Stiff-Tailed Ducks, Sea Ducks, Whistling Ducks, Diving Ducks, that it’s hard to know them all, especially the identity of ducks we don’t see in our area very often. Some ducks live and breed far removed from the U.S. as far as the north of England or Scotland and only pass this way during winter migration. The coast of North Carolina has been a good choice for wintering Scoters for many years. They gather in tightly packed, large flocks that take off together when they choose to move either in a straight line or in a V formation. A group of Scoters is called a ‘Mooter’ or a ‘Scooter.’ Avid bird watchers have also discovered that freshwater rivers and lakes are not off limits to wintering Scoters. Recently, a wildlife enthusiast in Emerald Isle noticed a rather stocky brown duck who seemed to be having trouble getting lift off to fly. After it appeared flight wasn’t going to happen, he managed to scoop up the duck and transport her to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for a check-up. The little, diving sea duck turned out to be a Common Scoter, which are also called Black Scoters, depending upon gender. The scientific name of the Common Scoter is ‘Nigra,’ which means black. Our juvenile Scoter patient had pale cheeks, a milk chocolate body with a whitish belly and a dark brownish-black, wide bill which we assessed as female. An adult male has glossy black plumage with a shiny black bill adorned with a colorful yellow or orange bulbous knob at the base. Both have dark brown eyes. Their legs are brown to black and their webbed feet, are also black. Generally speaking, this is a dark, cold water duck (but not so cold it doesn’t head south for the winter!). Her examination revealed no injuries, but she was underweight. Since there was a covered swimming pool in the area where she was found, our theory is she landed on the cover thinking it was a body of water, and did not have the water source required to maneuver her usual run across the water for take-off. a_blog_femalescoter3She basically grounded herself. A sea-duck’s legs, such as a Scoter’s, are situated a little farther back than those of a Mallard, Muscovy or Pekin, so they don’t walk upright on land very well. It’s not known how long she’d been sitting there with no food or water, but we do know she hadn’t eaten in some time because she was very, very hungry. A Scoter is a coastal duck that usually breeds in the sub-artic and has not been studied extensively in North America. Only a few nests in our country have ever been found. The common Scoter is a highly sociable species and is often seen in large groups, especially during the winter. For this reason, we knew rehabilitation timing would be an issue. She needs to pack on weight quickly so we can return her to her own kind before she succumbs to severe depression or the stress of captivity. A Scoter is a bulky little duck who weighs on average 2 to 2 ½ pounds with the male typically heavier in weight, wingspan is 28 inches and their height, bill to tail, is 18 to 20 inches. They have a long, pointy tail they hold straight up while sitting on water. This duck species dives for food, so it was a little tricky getting her to eat fish, shrimp, worms and insects in a hospital setting, but her rumbling tummy won out. It won’t be long now! In the wild, she will add crustaceans, mussels, fish eggs and duck weed to her diet. Scoters swallow mullosks whole and crush the shells in its gizzard. An interesting factoid regarding this diving duck is that they literally spread their wings under water and fly through the water to catch their prey! The Common Scoter is a fairly quiet bird, so we don’t hear much from her, but when we do catch a rare vocalization, it’s a harsh, raspy quack and just one. During courtship the male Scoter gets a little noisier with some high, shrill whistles and is known to be the most vocal of all waterfowl year’round. In their native territories, (Europe and Asia) male and female Scoters build a nest during April or May which is nothing more than a hefty scrape on the ground near water, lined with a grass/down mix and hidden by vegetation. a_blog_scoterf7The female will lay 6 to 8 off-white to pinkish buff eggs which hatch in about 30 days. The ducklings are born eyes-open, dark brown and able to swim and feed themselves soon after hatching, although they are not able to fly until around 45 days old. The youngsters then head out on their own, and the parents return to their flock to molt, which will render them unable to fly during the time they are losing and growing in new feathers. The Common Scoter is found all over the world, depending upon the time of year, but in their native countries, numbers of Scoters have fallen by 47% over the past two decades and although the reason is not pinpointed, the huge decline in population has been attributed to a number of factors such as oil spills, offshore wind farms, disturbance by boat traffic, hunting, climate change, pollution, development, natural predation, commercial exploitation and possibly, lower breeding success. England has placed the Common Scoter on their “Red List” which means they recognize urgent conservation action is needed for this stocky, diminutive, community oriented duck. We hope our “plumping” Common Scoter continues to thrive and is able to return to her flock. We aren’t sure what country she’s from, but we think we’ve heard a wee bit of an English accent in her quack!!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Aerial Beagles”

BLOG_BlackSkimmer31_When the young, underweight shorebird who could not fly was recently admitted to our shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, the staff became puzzled during the Black Skimmer’s examination when no injury was found. He was obviously thin and lethargic, but we couldn’t find anything else wrong. We can do a lot of remarkable things for wild animals in distress, but we can’t read minds and he wasn’t talking, in English anyway. We hydrated him, introduced a diet of shrimp and silversides, and he started coming around. The juvenile skimmer is putting on weight, becoming more active and continuing to improve. It’s only a guess, but we’re thinking he may not have paid enough attention to his parents’ classes on how to forage and eat on his own. Kids! There are three types of Skimmers, which are a small family of specialized and social shorebirds, found widely in North & South America, Africa and India. Although the global skimmers are closely related, the Black Skimmer is the largest and the only skimmer that resides in North America. Skimmers often roost with gulls and terns along our North Carolina coast. They are called Skimmers due to the way they forage and feed with their uniquely shaped bill. The lower mandible extends well beyond the tip of the upper mandible and that design sets it apart from other shorebirds whose bill is even from base to tip.  A Black Skimmer flies low over water, skimming the surface with its mouth open and submerging the lower, longer bill. When it comes in contact with a potential food item, it will reflexively snap its bill closed, capturing the meal, which would most likely be a silverside, killifish, menhaden, bluefish, sand lance, shrimp or needlefish. BLOG_BlackSkimmerFlyingPairThe food caught will be swallowed during flight or after landing. Although Black Skimmers are a water bird with webbed feet, it is unusual for them to be seen on the water swimming. They are either in the air or on the ground. If you see them on the ground, they often display the unusual habit of lying prone on the sand. This posture, with their bellies flat on the ground and their heads and necks extended in front of them, makes them look like exhausted “hound dogs.” So if you think a skimmer has “kicked the bucket,” take a closer look. It’s probably only resting or some folks refer to that behavior as “loafing.” Although active during the day at low tide, Black Skimmers will do most of their feeding at night. Adult Black Skimmers are easy to identify, even when they are found mingling in groups of gulls and terns. They have predominantly black markings; black back and hooded head and snow white forehead and under belly. Their webbed feet are bright reddish orange, and you can’t miss their most noticeable feature, the also bright reddish orange 2.5 inch uneven bill that is compressed laterally and resembles a knife blade. They have quite the under bite, but it serves them well! Skimmer’s bodies are oddly proportioned, measuring eighteen inches in length with long, narrow wings and extremely short legs. Their wingspan is 3.5 feet, but they weigh in at only a half pound. Skimmers have a light graceful flight, with steady beats of their long wings, and they are so stream lined, bird watchers have described them as “sports cars of the air.” BLOG_BlackSkimmer21Juvenile skimmers by contrast are mottled brown and black on top and off-white underneath. The juvenile also sports an even bill until adulthood development is evident. Skimmers, social birds who are dependent upon sandy coasts and barrier islands, nest in colonies upon beaches, salt marsh islands, dredge spoil islands, lagoons, inlets, sheltered bays, estuaries, sand bars and occasionally on a gravel roof. They prefer the shelter of tucked away water sources rather than open surf. Their nests are built on the ground and often consist of simple scrapes or depressions in the sand. Initial egg laying for skimmers usually occurs between mid-May and early June, but some late arrivals or re-nesting skimmers have been known to make the scene. Eggs are usually laid in every other day intervals and a typical nest contains 3-4 white, buff or blue-green eggs with brown markings. These eggs are often hard for people to see and very camouflaged on the bare sand, usually among shell fragments and scattered grass clumps. Incubation of the eggs requires between 21-26 days, and both parents share incubation and rearing responsibilities. Skimmers are smart birds; they almost always nest near aggressive gull and tern colonies so those equally loud birds can help ward off predators and other disrupters.

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They rely on camouflage or group mobbing to protect their nests. To protect their babies, the parent skimmer will “mob,” or rise up into the air, and attack intruders by swooping low and uttering a sharp, barking call to scare off predators, which includes humans. That’s where the nickname “Aerial Beagle” came from. When they get distressed, they sound like a dog barking overhead. The chicks hatch within about three weeks and start eating regurgitated fish dropped on the sand by their parents. It takes about four weeks until the chicks are ready to fly and another couple of weeks for them to learn to become proficient fliers. Black skimmers are a migratory species, therefore, we see an increased population when Northern skimmers show up in our North Carolina coastal region to winter, unless they head further south, which should be occurring during October. Black Skimmers are classified as threatened and a species of special concern due to habitat loss which has reduced suitable nesting spots. Their nests are also extremely vulnerable to disturbances by humans, domestic dogs, raccoons and predatory birds. So, during breeding season next Spring, please watch your step and keep dogs on leashes while enjoying a walk through the Black Skimmer’s habitat. BLOG_BlackSkimmerPortrait_Hopefully our rehabilitated, young skimmer will be strong enough soon to rejoin his colony in time to possibly make an aerial trek even farther south for the Winter, and we look forward to him visiting his birthplace of North Carolina next year!

Happy Upcoming Holidays, Everyone!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Author’s Website http://www.bergman-althouse.com/

 

Another Great White!!

Blog&FB_2-15Sep_GWEgretWFishWhen someone brings up the topic “Great White,” we automatically go there, especially during this beach going season where some aggressive Great Whites have presented themselves in displays of ostentatious and hazardous behaviors! However, there is another Great White that is more pervasive in our coastal area and far less likely to cause any peril or harm. The elegant Great White Egret is an impressive and gorgeous sight to see along our Eastern North Carolina Coast. There are smaller white egrets, such as the Common Egret, but this one is the “greatest” because it is the largest. The Great White Egret is a tall (3.5 feet), brilliantly white, long-legged wading bird with a lengthy, slim neck, an extensive, dagger-like bill and a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. They fly slowly but powerfully, with only two wing beats per second and can cruise around 25 miles an hour. Gangly and awkward to maneuver, they are definitely a handful to examine at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. We recently received a call on a Great White who could not fly and was unable to jump a fence when approached by humans. The caller, with the help of her friend, managed to contain the wader in a sheet thrown over him to allow for safe transport. During examination at the shelter, no injury or disease was found. Our theory is while hunting for food, he must have ingested chemicals or other toxins in recent run-off caused by massive rains and became ill and too weak to fly. We are treating him for possible poisoning and with his abundant finger-mullet feedings, as well as large silver sides, he is getting stronger every day. Great White Egrets stand erect and motionless for long periods of time searching or waiting for prey to approach during the hunt in marshes, ponds and tidal flats. They capture your attention like dazzling statues in the distance with their beautiful white plumage that drapes over their back and rump during breeding season. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1522Also during breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns a brilliant green. They have skinny black legs with very long toes and a thick yellow-orange bill used to capture fish with one quick and deadly jab. In addition to fish, they eat frogs, reptiles, insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers and small aquatic animals. When they fly, their slim neck is tucked into a tight S-curve, which is quite different from other marsh birds such as storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills that extend their necks in flight. Males and females are identical in appearance, although the male is a little larger. They are not normally vocal birds, but when disturbed they will present a low, hoarse croaking sound. They become more vocal during breeding season with higher-pitched croaking and occasional squawks. Great Egrets are found in freshwater and saltwater habitats and can be solitary or colonial. They often roost with other wading birds such as herons and ibises and nest in colonies, usually on islands that are isolated from predators, especially raccoons. Great Whites breed at 2 to 3 years of age, and displays of courtship by males include calling, circular display flights and stretching their neck up with their long, scissor bill pointed skyward. Great White Egrets are monogamous and both parents incubate their pale green-blue, three to four eggs for 23-27 days while sheltered in a platform nest 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep made of sticks and twigs found high in trees along the water, which is a location the male has selected. The eggs will be staggered hatches, meaning all the chicks are at different stages of development during rearing. Both parents feed the young, also white at birth, by regurgitation and youngsters may stumble out of the nest at 3 weeks and be ready to fly at 6-7 weeks. The Great White Egret adapts well to human habitation and is frequently seen near wetlands in urban and suburban areas along the coast. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1715Unfortunately, Great White Egrets became nearly extinct by 95% in the nineteenth century due to fashion-plume hunters, but the Great Egret is now protected and has bounced back as a conservation success story. As a matter of fact, the plight of the GW Egret sparked restoration conversation many years ago which resulted in the first laws enacted to protect birds. In 1953, the Great White Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed partly to prevent the killing of birds, such as the Great Egret, for their feathers. It’s so much more enjoyable and humane to see these snowy white shorebirds adorned with their magnificent plumage than to see those grand and glorious feathers attached to a lady’s hat! Of course, most people won’t see Great White Egrets in their backyard, but to ensure their survivability we can encourage the preservation of suitable wetlands, monitor pollution and pesticide levels, as well as, limit the spread of invasive aquatic plants. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_MG_5877Wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are happy to say the Great White Egret’s outlook is much brighter, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last few decades. They still have to dodge and outwit predators such as raccoons, which we already gave the mean face to earlier in this article but there are also crows and vultures to watch out for and humans who destroy habitat also pose a huge threat to their livelihood. The oldest Great Egret is known to have reached 22 years and 10 months and was banded in Ohio. Our Great White, at the shelter, is cooperating by remaining calm and tolerant and by maintaining a good appetite during his rehabilitation. He should be returning to the wetlands soon, and we’re sure he’ll have quite the story to tell when he meets up again with family and friends!

best always,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All