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Friday, August 1, 2014

Shorebirds of SW Florida: Red Knot and a Quartet of Coastal Plovers (plus Two Confusing Terns)

[Ft. Myers Birding Hotspots, SW Florida. November 2013]
[Note: this "lost" post was left in "draft" mode and recently "rediscovered" to be published now]

Shorebirds are a fascinating group of birds. Although generally associated with mudflats ("sandpipers" like Least Sandpiper), they can also be found in grasslands ("grasspipers" like Mountain Plover), rocky coasts ("rockpipers" like Surfbird), and even woodlands (eg. Woodcock).

This post will profile typical shorebirds of Southwest Florida that can be expected to be found on the beaches and lagoons at famed Southwest Florida venues such as Bunche Beach Preserve and Little Estero Lagoon including such species as:
  • Red Knot
  • Snowy, Semipalmated, Wilson's and Piping Plovers
  • Least and Western Sandpipers
  • And, lastly the identification challenge posed by two similar terns: Common and Forster's Tern
Red Knot seen at Little Estero Lagoon

We start with a shorebird that has suffered sharp declines (over 50% since the 1980's): the Red Knot.

 Red Knot seen at  Little Estero Lagoon

The primary cause of this population crash is the disappearance of the Red Knot's principal food source: the eggs spawned by Horseshoe Crabs which fuel the Knot's 9,000 mile Spring migration. Unfortunately, millions of these unfortunate crustaceans are now being ignominiously decimated for use as bait in fishing.

One more example of how interconnected organisms are in Nature's web and our failure to connect the dots until the damage has already been done.

Another threatened species (at "Vulnerable", it is one notch away from "Endangered") is the Piping Plover. This tiny, pale plover with orange legs breeds in the Great Plains and the Atlantic Coast where they risk nesting failure due to human and dog disturbance -- as this excellent article published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service points out (a full reading of which is highly encouraged).

Piping Plover seen at Bunche Beach

Yet another small plover with orange legs -- this time, it is the abundant Semipalmated Plover:

Semipalmated Plover seen at Bunche Beach

Snowy Plover was also observed:

Snowy Plover seen at Little Estero Lagoon

This tiny plover with silvery legs seems to be perpetually in a hurry -- running from one spot to the next; almost invisible against the sand.

Snowy Plover seen at Little Estero Lagoon

Unlike the Piping Plover, the Snowy Plover is a summer breeder at Little Estero Lagoon.

Wilson's Plover seen at Little Estero Lagoon

Our final coastal plover is the Wilson's. If an Old World scientist had been responsible for naming this species, it might well have been called "American Greater Sand Plover" (while the Snowy would be "American Kentish Plover"!).

Wilson's Plover seen at Little Estero Lagoon

Aside from the Black-bellied Plover, the Wilson's is the largest plover likely to be encountered in these environs. It's robust bill, dull pink legs and brown upper-parts are distinctive.

Now for the terns:

Tern 1
Tern 2

Both terns are equally sized and look very similar. Closer scrutiny reveals that tern 1 has brighter and longer legs; tern 1 also has the classic "comma" mark on the side of its head. These differences reveal tern 1 to be Forster's and tern 2 to be Common.

Western Sandpiper seen at Little Estero Lagoon

Finally, a couple of peeps. A small peep with black legs and a drooping bill is the Western Sandpiper. Semipalmated Sandpiper also occurs here but only in migration.

Least Sandpiper seen at Little Estero Lagoon

The next peep is an easier ID -- brown upper-parts and the trademark yellow legs can only mean one thing: Least Sandpiper.

Southwest Florida's beaches offer more than just sun and sand -- they are also important wintering (and passage) grounds for several species that call this their home for the season.

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