Beached gannet and shorebirds in July

2007 July 23
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Anyone who has watched a flock of gannets soaring over the ocean, and then dropping — speeding out of the sky like thunderbolts from the fist of Zeus, piercing the water with barely a splash — will understand the consternation and sadness I felt to see a young gannet huddled on the beach near Bolivar Flats last Friday.

beached-northern-gannet

It was immediately evident that this large, dark-backed bird didn’t belong on the beach, and it was also clear that something was seriously wrong. Since the bird was so far out of context, it took me a few minutes to sort out whether it was a gannet or one of the boobies.

damaged-flight-feathers

The gannet’s flight feathers showed extensive wear and damage.

second-year-northern-gannet

The bird seemed barely alive. It did not even attempt to move.

I wanted to help the bird but didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, I was fairly certain that gannets aren’t supposed to be in Texas in July, and I wondered how important this observation might be.

As it turns out, a few gannets wash up on the Texas coast every summer. Apparently, some of the younger birds do not go north in the spring. By summer, some of the stragglers begin succumbing to feather mites, scarcity of food, and other stresses.

In fact, the bird Brian and I observed had been found and carried down to the beach by Houston birder Joseph Kennedy. (See his pictures.) It was one of several birds that washed up on shore over the weekend, setting Texbirds abuzz with reports and speculation. This terse report indicates that one bird died and two were taken into rehab. I have not been able to find out whether the Bolivar bird lived or died, but as weak as it appeared to be, I fear the worst.

american-avocets

These American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were a highlight of the afternoon. One bird had already lost its breeding colors completely.

Shorebirds have begun returning to the coast. Several Long-billed Curlews put on a show, and a solitary Whimbrel picked through the seaweed. I saw two Piping Plovers, both still in breeding plumage.

Royal Terns, Gulf Coast residents, were noisy and abundant. Parents, who have already lost their black crowns, are carrying fish to begging, yellow-billed youngsters. Least Terns are molting out of breeding plumage. A Gull-billed Tern swooped over the salt marsh. Thirty-four Wilson’s Plovers congregated on a sandbar.

I had a brief glimpse of a Northern Harrier in the distance, which really surprised me. Apparently, though, the species breeds occasionally on the coast.

Two Magnificent Frigatebirds soared high — first a white-marked female, then a male.

As exhilarating as the afternoon was, it left me more aware than ever of the gaps (or gaping holes?) in my knowledge. There is so much I’d like to know about the habits, the distributions, the plumages, the voices, the lives of these birds. By spending a few hours a year at Bolivar Flats, I can become acquainted with them. But to really know them? That’s something else altogether.

eustoma-exaltatum

The gentian Eustoma exaltatum brightened the dunes and marshes.

pink-flower

Brian and I would appreciate help identifying this fragile pink flower. Any ideas? Update: Thanks to Rurality for identifying this plant as an Agalinis, possibly A. maritima.

Related posts:

  1. More Gulf Coast photos
  2. Birds of Tropical Storm Lee, Part 1
  3. Gulf Coast report and Long-tailed Duck
  4. Upper Texas Coast in crisis
  5. Gulf Coast Day 1: Spectacle and color
5 Responses
  1. July 24, 2007

    Hi,
    just wanted to drop by to tell you that I liked your one of your earlier posts – “This is the time to Bird”. I fully agree and I think I know what you mean, especially “Learn to bird in ways that transcend your ability to reason and verbalize.” triggered me.

    We had a discussion with an experienced birder we met once in the field and he was saying the same thing. We were discussing predators and he said that he recognized birds the same way one recognizes one’s partner, regardless of the colors, or style of clothes he/she is wearing on a particular particular day. You know, by a profound understanding and deep recognition of the bird, or partner respectively.

    For me it’s the difference between the coastal species I grew up with on Gotland/Sweden and the more recent species, like some warblers, that I can identify, but I can’t say I know them in the same way as the old familiar ones.

    Today I also added your RSS-feed to my Thunderbird email client, so I can keep up with your posts better.

    Keep it up the good work!/Anders

  2. djringer permalink*
    July 24, 2007

    Thank you, Anders.

  3. July 26, 2007

    Agalinis maritima or A. purpurea on the second one, I think.

    Also I think the first one is actually a Sabatia… Eustoma exaltatum is not supposed to have yellow centers, according to my book. (But I’m not familiar with it personally so I’m not sure.)

  4. djringer permalink*
    July 26, 2007

    Hmm, thanks for the feedback. Agalinis does look good for the pink flower. I can’t tell which one it is, but it was in a salt (or at least brackish) marsh, so maritimia seems likely.

    I’ve looked around at various Sabatia photos and am sticking with the Eustoma ID. The yellow dot you see is actually the style (visible on the large size), not markings on the petals as the Sabatias seem to have. For comparison, here’s another Eustoma exaltatum photo.

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