This name evokes an image of an inebriated medieval peddler hawking gossip along with his wares. From the first time I heard it, the name fascinated me, and hence the bird with this name does, to0.
The wandering tattler (Tringa incana) is a medium-sized sandpiper with a white eyebrow above a dark eye, yellow legs, beautiful gray flight feathers, and a white belly. In addition to the color pattern, this bird is easy to spot because it doesn’t just walk along the shore looking for insects and tidbits to eat — it bobs and teeters as it walks. It looks a bit inebriated.
Both times I’ve seen a wandering tattler it’s been in September, single birds migrating south from breeding in the mountains of northwestern Alaska and Canada. The good news is that its range is so widespread that its conservation status (IUCN) is Least Concern.
According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, the “wandering” part of the name comes from its widespread occurrence over the Pacific ocean. The “tattler” part refers to its alarm call which alerts other birds to danger. In French, it’s called a “chevalier errant” and in Spanish, “playero vagabundo.”
All great names, and so apropos, for a shorebird that teeters along coastlines and into mountains from Alaska to Chile to the islands of the Pacific.
And, speaking of wandering tattlers, I’ll be walking the Coastside Trail along Half Moon Bay again with Slow Adventure this week and hope to post my best photos along the way.
Point Lobos (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve) is a great place to visit any time of the year — the views are amazing and the wildlife always plenty. Yet this time of year is truly amazing for watching breeding birds and marine mammals with pups. To celebrate today’s World Oceans Day, I spent the morning at Point Lobos with my birding class led by Brian Weed, and here are some of our sightings.
Protecting the north side of Monterey Harbor is the U.S. Coast Guard breakwater and wharf. It doesn’t look like much of a birding spot from the parking lot, but if you look over the railing at low tide, there’s usually quite a variety of shorebirds on the riprap rocks or in the water. (There’s usually quite a number of divers, too, but that’s a separate story.)
I often find two small, similar shorebirds: surfbird and black turnstone. Both of these birds are common in the winter and the populations appear to be healthy. The surfbird is mostly gray (breeding plumage is spotted), with yellow legs and a pale lower bill at the base. It runs along the surf-washed rocks looking for goodies to eat. This little bird can pull mussels and barnacles from rocks and swallow them whole. (It doesn’t look that strong.)
The black turnstone is about the same size and has a black back and bill, white belly, and dark pink legs. It appears to eat the same foods as the surfbird, but does more probing and stone turning (as per the name). The black turnstone is especially lovely when it takes flight, flashing a chevron pattern across outstretched wings. Both species are very animated and fun to watch.
Another breakwater bird that looks to me like a wind-up toy is the black oystercatcher, with its bright orange bill and pink legs protruding from a dark black-brown body. This bird is also noisy when disturbed or in flight. The oystercatcher, too, searches for limpets and mussels along the rocks. (This year the mussel beds are substantial and healthy due to the missing sea stars — see my seastar wasting post.) Did you know that you can tell the difference between the male and female (which look identical in the field) by looking the bird in the eye? Males tend to have no or few eye flecks (the pupils appear round) and females tend to have dark eye flecks (the pupils looks oddly shaped).
No local breakwater would be complete without gulls. During this breakwater visit, I saw three: mew gull, glaucous-winged gull and our year-round Western gull (all of the shots are adults or near adults). The mew gull is a small white-headed gull with a short bill. As a result, I think it always has a quizzical look on its face. Its legs are yellow (which you can’t see here).
The glaucous-winged gull looks a lot like the Western gull, except its wings are a much paler gray, as are the wingtips. The Western gull (paired below) has a darker back and black wing tips. Both have pinkish legs, but to me the Western gull’s legs are usually a cleaner pink. The glaucous-winged gull has dark eyes, while the Western’s eyes are yellow. It helps to have them near each other to tell them apart.
Although all of these breakwater visitors are vulnerable to coastal pollution, especially oil, their populations are healthy and hearty at this time. (Speaking of oil, did you know that our daily activities account for more oil in the ocean than oil spills? That surprised me. About 8% comes from oil spills, 60% from natural seeps including the largest off Santa Barbara, and the remainder from our poorly maintained and operated autos and boats. View the Dell’Amore & Nunez article linked below or The National Academies Press report.) Each of us carries quite a responsibility for negative or positive impacts on our ocean and its inhabitants.
If you have a chance, take a closer look at the rocks of your local breakwater, especially at low tide. And remember, it’s their territory (even though we created it), so try not to disturb them. Just watch for interesting behaviors and feeding surprises.
Dell’Amore, C. & Nunez, C. (2014, Mar. 25). 3 surprising souces of oil pollution in the ocean. National Geographic online. Available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140325-texas-pollution-oil-spills-animals-science/
Guzzetti, B. M. et al. (2008). Secrets in the eyes of black oystercatchers: A new sexing technique. Journal of Field Ornithology, 79(2), 215–223. Abstract available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/27715263.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds website.
I never thought I’d be thrilled to see a few sea stars (starfish). But after nearly two years of bad news regarding sea star wasting syndrome (they literally melt into oblivion), there’s some good news.
First, scientists know the cause — it’s a virus. Knowing the source is a great start! But it’s a virus that’s been around for a while and has never before wreaked such havoc — killing sea stars all along the North American west coast. So, there are still a lot of questions that need answering: Why so deadly now? Are there contributing factors? How has this changed the shoreline community (sea stars are major predators)? Will the virus strike again in the same way, and if so, when?
The other good news is our sea stars are coming back. Along the Monterey Coast Guard Breakwater today, I saw at least a dozen individuals feeding on the mats of mussels that have thrived since the local stars disappeared. I’m so thrilled to see them back.