Friday, June 8, 2012

Getting to Know the Birds Who Live in the Marsh: Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari

A Black Skimmer, left, and a Laughing Gull at the marsh
I count myself among the world's worst bird watchers, but I don't lack enthusiasm for the avocation. Usually, I look at the birds through my camera's longer lens and shoot a few photos that I will compare to the illustrations in my bird guides later on. Occasionally, I will treat myself to a guided birding excursion where experts tell me what I'm looking at. My favorite of these excursions is the Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari, between Cape May and Wildwood Crest. (The Skimmer is named after a bird, see photo.) Captain Ginny and Captain Ed know where to find the most interesting birds, and they describe them in ways that help us less adept birders remember who's who.

Take for example the first birds we saw yesterday, the Laughing Gulls. These guys come here to nest and raise their chicks. As many species do, they fix up their appearance in order to attract the best possible mate. Their heads turn black as if they'd visited their expert colorist, and they appear to put on white eyeliner. As I mentioned in my two previous posts about the lighthouse full moon climb and the horseshoes on the beach, the full moon occurred Monday. This was good news for the Friends of the Lighthouse and the Delaware Bay horseshoes, but sad news indeed for the Laughing Gull community. They had prepared their nest in the salt marsh grass, laid their eggs, and then extra-high tides from the full moon and windy weather washed them all away. Heartbreaking! When we cruised by, we could see them busily rebuilding nests to attempt another go at families.
This Laughing Gull is carrying nesting material to his/her new home.

My father always loved seeing egrets because they reminded him of his childhood in Louisiana. They still seem exotic to me even though I see them often around these parts. This is a Snowy Egret, and you can see his yellow feet. We saw many of these yesterday, and many Great Egrets who have yellow bills and black feet. (Now will I remember that?)
"I am a Snowy Egret and I have yellow feet."  
An Osprey couple in their nest
The Osprey are easy to identify because they build their huge nests up high, usually, and you can usually see the mom hanging up there with chicks or eggs. The father might be up there, too, but he might be spotted nearby. There are around a dozen Osprey nests in the marsh, remarkable if you remember how the Ospreys were endangered not so long ago. The use of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s caused their eggs to get too soft, and chicks could not mature. Awareness was raised by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, and eventually DDT was banned. Happily, the Osprey population recovered. The full moon tides were unkind to some of the Osprey pairs in the marsh--those that built their nests too low lost their eggs. Unlike the Laughing Gulls, they are not able to re-nest this year and now are just hanging around until it is time to fly south.

The Oystercatcher is the coolest marsh bird, just because of its bright orange bill. I'm pretty sure I heard Captain Ginny say that these Oystercatchers don't actually eat oysters here, but the long, skinny razor clams. They pop the razor clam shell open with their long orange bill and eat the yummy clam from inside. It takes awhile for the kids to learn this trick, and Captain Ginny reports that they often see the young ones with razor clams stuck to their bills looking a bit like Pinocchio!
An Oystercatcher shows off his carrot-like bill.
Captain Ginny and Captain Ed don't just teach us about birds in the marsh. At one point, they scooped up a clump of brown seaweed and examined what was living in it. There was a brown speckled Laughing Gull egg, two kinds of tiny shrimp, and two kinds of mussels. Near the end of the trip, Captain Ed pulled out a plastic tub full of marsh life: a large rock crab, sea squirts (they do squirt water when feeling threatened), three kinds of welks (I thought they were conchs but conchs do not live in NJ), and more crabs and critters whose names I do not remember.
Captain Ginny shows us a tiny shrimp that lives in marsh seaweed (photo by Cara Cotellese)
The Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari is a fine way to spend a couple hours at the shore and learn about those marshes we drive past everyday. I'm getting better with my bird identification skills, at least with those that live in the marsh!
Me and Cara on the 40-foot Skimmer (photo by Captain Ginny)


Cara Cotellese said...

Loved your retelling of our great adventure yesterday! I, like you, do not really remember things about birds but yesterday was a real treat as our "Safari" made things easy to understand and remember. I especially liked the fact that binoculars were provided so we coudl really see things close up! I have a new understanding and admiration for our feathered friends here in the Salt Marshes of South Jersey!

Margaret said...

Thanks Cara! I had a fabulous time with you and the Captains, and I think I absorbed just enough new knowledge about marsh creatures for one day. Great lunch afterwards, too!