Speaking of Nature: West Basin birds
Bill Danielson photo
An adult common tern delivers a fresh fish to its excited and hungry chick.
Bill Danielson photo
Is PE5 a least sandpiper? You tell me! There is metal band on the right leg, but the bird never turned for me to see the number.
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Bill Danielson is taking a much needed and rare break from his weekly column but will soon return to this page.
I had been so mesmerized by the loon that I completely forgot about my camera bag. It was only when I turned back to look for it that I realized how far I had walked. The bag was nowhere in sight, which was a little alarming since it contained about $1,000 worth of lenses. That, combined with the fact that the bag was (or at least had been) sitting on a boulder in plain view, put a little extra pep in my step as I made my way back.
Relief washed over me as I eventually saw the black lump waiting for me. Only then, with all of my equipment accounted for, was I able to take a moment to bask in the glow of the experience I had just had. I had been in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and there had been no snafus. I had a good day’s work under my belt and it was only 6:47 AM! Too early to go home, I jumped in my car and headed for a spot on Martha’s Vineyard called the West Basin.
My idea was to park in the public lot and then head down to the water’s edge and watch the terns fly by. I realized that this would be a difficult photography challenge because I would be looking into the sun, but I thought some artsy silhouette shots might be nice. Parking the car was easy, but walking along the water’s edge was out of the question. It was high tide and there was no shoreline to walk along. Time for Plan B.
The little harbor in the West Basin is a delightful spot. On that particular day, there was an eclectic mix of old and new boats that really beckoned the photographer closer, but as I followed this unconscious call, I suddenly became aware of a much less subtle signal. The powerful and repulsive odor of rotting fish suddenly hit me in the face like a fist and I turned tail in full retreat without a moment’s hesitation. The grimace on the face of the man pulling his motorboat out of the water told me I wasn’t the only one to find this olfactory assault unpleasant. Time for Plan C!
I was actually heading back to my car when I noticed a gorgeous sailboat that had anchored just off Lobsterville Beach for the night. This was worth a photo and as I lowered my camera, I saw that there was an inconspicuous trail leading off into the back dunes. It was small enough that I hadn’t noticed it when plans A and B were still viable options, but now it looked quite interesting with Plan C glasses on.
In short order, I found myself deposited back out onto the beach. Had I kept walking in the direction the loon had been leading me, I would have ended up at this spot, but I don’t think that this particular geographic point was still considered part of Lobsterville Beach. Instead, I was at the mouth of the West Basin harbor, near the spot I had originally wanted to explore if not for the high tide. To my great delight, however, I discovered that this was better than I had anticipated.
I was no longer looking into the sun as I had been when following the loon. The beach had made a big, sweeping arc and I was now standing in a position where I was looking out at the water with the sun to my back. Much easier for photography! Now where was that loon?
With the loon nowhere in sight, I decided a nice casual amble down the beach was in order. I noticed that the “dunes” above the high tide line had been cordoned off and marked with signs identifying the area as a shorebird-nesting site. I really liked the idea that someone was thinking of the birds in this way and even though it was so late in the season that the birds had already done their breeding, I still looked for any evidence of nests that could be seen from behind the rope. I didn’t see anything but beach grass and poison ivy. Trespassers might not get a ticket, but they would pay a stiff fine!
The beach seemed deserted at first. I was content to look for shells and admire the sailboats, but it wasn’t long before the terns started flying by and I was in the right spot again. There were common terns (Sterna hirundo) and least terns (Sternula antillarum), but it was the common terns that put on a show. Some flew by with fish while others flew by in groups, but I really started paying attention when one common tern passed close and dove at me with a loud scream. This is something that resonated with me because I worked for the Maryland Colonial Waterbird Project in 1988 and I spent time in the company of terns almost every day.
A diving tern is an angry tern and that usually means that you are close to a nest. I knew it was far too late in the year for active nests, but I decided to scan the beach with my big lens and I noticed that about 200 feet down there were some terns sitting on the sand. And these weren’t just any terns. These were young of this year! Aha!!
When confronted with a situation like this, there is only one truly effective strategy: patience. Make no sudden moves, but continue to move slowly and steadily like a glacier. Sometimes you turn your attention to the water and then side-step your way closer and closer. As long as you are slow, you have a chance. And it worked.
I never got really close to the young terns, but I was close enough to capture one of those wonderful moments when devoted parents deliver food to their hungry chicks. I have no real way of knowing what kind of fish the parent brought (it might have been a silverside or a sandlance), but it was fresh food and the youngster on the beach was ready for it. The energy of the begging made me laugh and the low angle of the early morning light made all the difference for the photo.
I thought that might be the end of my luck, but that was just the beginning. A small flock of shorebirds appeared and they started making their way up toward me. Had there been just a few, I might not have been as lucky, but there were enough so that beach politics took over and I was ignored. Larger birds poked at smaller birds, there was a great deal of chasing and there was a clear need to spread out.
I was 25 feet from the water’s edge (my lens has a range finder) and I hoped the birds might pass in front of me if I remained still as a statue. No luck at first. They simply flew past me and landed just a little ways up the beach. But then my luck turned as a group of fishermen emerged onto the beach. All of that casting made the birds skittish and they headed back my way. This time the statue routine worked and I got some wonderful photos.
The highlight birds of this final bit of luck were a pair of ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres). I have seen these beautiful birds on many occasions, but never so close under such good conditions. They were still much more standoffish than the sanderlings (Calidris alba) and the semipalmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), but since they were larger, I could still get a photo of a shy bird.
But there was one bit of magic left for me that morning. As the little “peeps” squabbled over who owned which section of beach, a particularly small sandpiper came moseying along as though it were the only one there. It walked right past me and never really stopped moving. This would have been a delightful situation, but what made it a stand-out moment was the fact that the little bird had been banded. An ornithologist somewhere up in Canada had caught this little creature and tagged it PE5.
So here’s a question for the hardcore birders out there: is PE5 a semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) or a least sandpiper (C. minutilla)? I rarely see either species and sandpipers as a whole are a diabolically tricky group because of all their different plumages. The yellowish legs have me thinking least, but I want to hear from you. I’ll tally the votes and announce the audience opinion at the beginning of my next regular column.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com