Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Piping Plovers on the Beach – Kiawah Island, SC

We recently spent five days, March 9 – March 13, on Kiawah Island, just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Although the island is steadily becoming more heavily developed – no slowdown in the housing market seems apparent there, and all the houses are huge – large areas of coastal marsh have been protected, and during several months of the year it’s still possible to find stretches of a wide, quiet beach where more birds than people can be seen.

Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Northern Gannets, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, American Oystercatchers, Forster’s Terns, Tri-colored Herons, Red Knots and Least Sandpipers were among the birds we saw. One of my favorite experiences was watching four Piping Plovers on the beach. I saw them almost every day while we were there, at some point along the beach. Already in spring plumage, they looked more brightly marked than when I had seen them before in winter plumage – but their pale color, white forehead and eyestripe, sharp black band across the brow, and narrow black breast-band were familiar. With their small size, round, plump shape, very short orange bill tipped in black, and orange legs, it’s hard not to call them cute. They’re very appealing and fun to watch, but knowing that they’re a threatened and endangered species, I tried to be careful not to disturb them by getting too close.

They usually were traveling with a small flock of Sanderlings. When the Sanderlings flew, the Piping Plovers flew with them. But while the Sanderlings fed intently in their scurrying way along the edge of the surf, the Piping Plovers usually foraged separately, a little further back from the waves, more spread out from each other, and less intense. They were more likely to stand and look around from time to time, and often wandered over to explore around a tide pool. They foraged by running from one spot to another, probing into the sand or – and this was the most entertaining thing to watch – in very wet sand on the edge of the surf, they often stuck one foot into the sand and stirred it quickly, meanwhile looking around as if just admiring the scenery – then leaned over and poked a bill into the sand. They did this repeatedly, and I assume the motion stirred up prey in some way. I also saw Semipalmated Plovers doing the same kind of thing.


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