Winter birds of the Bay

Published: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 09:32 AM.

Recently an avocet was spotted in the marsh. Even if you are not a birder – and this writer is not – the avocet will get your attention. (This elicited a whispered “Holy Cow!” by this observer.) This is the long-legged shorebird with the long, thin upturned bill. In profile this bird has a Bob Hope ski nose aspect.

Although not related at all – other than being birds –the American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) has a lot of life strategies similar to white pelicans. They breed well to the north in Saskatchewan, Minnesota, and interior Washington State, although some breeding colonies can be found as far south as California and Texas. They migrate in winter to the California coast, the Gulf coast, and around Florida. They are a rare visitor to Atlantic coast marshes as well. Here similarities end, because avocets are waders when looking for a meal.

When feeding, they go along the marsh shore sweeping the bill from side to side stirring up small crustaceans. On bays and estuaries, they will also feed on exposed mudflats at low tide. This is a fairly tall bird – up to 20 inches – with blue legs. We do not get to see this bird with its pleasing rust colored spring and summer plumage on its head and neck. But in its winter plumage of light grey head and black on white body it is hard to miss. However, it is that slender, black, up-turned bill that makes it immediately eye catching.

Avocet eggs were once harvested on their breeding colonies and they were hunted to near extinction in parts of their former range along the Atlantic coast. Nevertheless, habitat destruction, especially the loss of wetlands in the western U.S., has most hurt the avocet population.

Even if you are not an avid birder, and like me, prefer to just observe those birds with the good manners to stand or feed out in the open where they can be seen, winter is the time to see some truly remarkable visitors. If you are a birder, this area of the Florida coast is a birder’s paradise in winter, with excellent viewing opportunities on St. Joseph Bay, St. Vincent Sound, St. Vincent Island and Apalachicola. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is only a short drive to the east, with its fresh and saltwater habitats and viewing platforms. Birders visit there from all over the country in winter. Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in this area record impressive totals of migrating birds – both in number and variety. With good places to stay and good places to eat, this is an ideal place to add some birds to your life list.

Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.

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