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Surf birds at Cape Hatteras

Laughing Gull, wallpaper available

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Boat-Tailed Grackles are crow-sized blackbirds adapted to a coastal lifestyle. Of the various songbirds on Hatteras, few of them show up on the outer beaches. Boat-Tailed Grackles are a notable exception. They forage at the edge of the surf, digging for small invertebrates. This week they were fattening themselves on mole crabs (a.k.a. sand bugs), little beetle-shaped crabs that burrow in wet sand. When coquina clams (another burrower at surf edges) are abundant, they'll eat those, using their beaks like nutcrackers.

When a wave washes in, they leap and flutter to keep their balance.

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I was mildly surprised to find this Black-Bellied Plover flying over the surf one morning:

The lifestyles of shorebirds are a mystery to me. They have a very short nesting season--I know that much. So shorebird "spring" migration carries on into early June, and "fall" migration starts in July. But you'd think that in mid-late June, these birds would be ensconced on their breeding grounds.

And it just isn't necessarily so. I saw nine different species of shorebirds on this trip, and only two breed anywhere in the vicinity. The rest of them are birds of the west or the arctic tundra. And this isn't considered unusual. Black-Bellied Plovers never rate anything below "uncommon" at any time of the year on the Outer Banks.

Field guides aren't much help with these questions. My tentative hypothesis based on internet research is that this is a failed breeder. Apparently, when a bird fails to find a mate or is otherwise stymied in its attempt to breed, it may immediately head back to its wintering grounds, doing an early molt on the way. I guess there's no point in enduring the rigors of the tundra when no fruit is going to come of it this year.

If nothing else, it makes for good stories!More Hatteras highlights


July 1st, 2012 at 5:53 pm
Excellent shots! I like the colors in the second one, but the pose in the third one still wins!

July 1st, 2012 at 6:00 pm
Very nice! I didn't realize that the Boat-tailed Grackles were crow-sized, and waded in the surf like that!

July 2nd, 2012 at 11:14 pm
Crows are stouter of course, but length is very comparable. At a glance I regularly mistake BTGs for crows (whereas I'm more likely to mistake a Common Grackle for, say, a Red-Winged Blackbird.)