August 25, 2020 ~ Hurricane Laura had finally stopped wobbling about and declared its intention to make landfall along the eastern Texas border and the Sabine River. A hurricane is not to be taken lightly, when you are within 30 miles of the eye path, especially if you are on the “wet” eastern side, which carries the majority of the wind, rain and tornadoes. But this one was still two days away from landfall, and clouds were collecting, so it was time to go see what birds I could, before the arrival of predicted winds and rain. I headed towards Quintana, a small beach-centered town just south of Surfside and Galveston.
The Quintana Jetty Park is a simple city park built along the southwest side of the Freeport Harbor Channel, where big tankers and freight ships enter and leave the Port of Freeport. The channel water was quiet, as it is protected by a granite jetty on either side, extending over 3000 feet out into the water. The waves left over from Hurricane Marco made decent “beginner” surfing as they rolled in from the southeast.
Here I found a bird that was new to me! These sturdy handsome birds with bright orange feet picked their way along the moss-covered granite boulders submerged along the edge of the channel. They have a short bill, an interesting cinnamon-spotted pattern on their wings, and a broad rounded black-and-white collar.
This is the Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres. Their Latin name might be interesting to my readers who enjoy the beach, rodeos, and/or gladiatorial sports – it derives from arena, or “sand”. I saw quite a bit of variation in their markings, some having a very dark collar, some having almost no russet spots at all.
The Ruddy Turnstone is a long-distance migratory bird, flying as much as 6500 miles from their breeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle, to their non-breeding grounds along the coasts of eastern North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The chicks can fly 19 days after hatching, and use all those days to eat as much as possible, storing fat for their long flight, which starts two days later. The birds migrate in stages, first the non-breeding adults, then the breeding adults, then the youngsters, so the young birds make this first migration entirely on their own, without adults. Talk about jumping out of the nest! Their migration routes take them across the central United States, across Eurasia, and from Alaska across the Pacific down to Hawaii and then to South America.
Their long narrow wings give them an advantage in fast long-distance flights. All I was able to get for you was the wind-blown tips of his wings.
Breeding plumage is vivid black, white and russet calico markings with very distinctive black and white cheek rings and broad collar. Check out this image of their cute old-fashioned “aviator helmets”, in the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an optical illusion created by the distinctive black and white markings of their breeding plumage. Their non-breeding plumage fades with time from those distinctive markings, to more muted and mottled brown and white markings. This bird still shows the remnants of breeding plumage.
I finally looked up from my focus on the Turnstones, and found a Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, had settled right there. I was tickled to get him so close, and to have managed not to overexpose his pure white plumage. His bright yellow feet differentiate him from all the other white egrets and herons. The immature birds have a yellow stripe up the back of their legs, which changes to black as they mature, so this is probably a young adult.
From Quintana, I took a quick jaunt over to Boot Road in Surfside. This is actually Sailfish Rd, but because a solitary oyster-encrusted boot marks a fence post along this road, and birds are often seen in the neighboring Oyster Creek Cut… well, birders call it Boot Road. I found this lovely Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, among the oysters, nicely lit by the late afternoon sun.
As if to wave me on my way, he turned and fluffed his feathers a bit, giving me a great view of his slate-blue color.
Turning back toward Houston, I drove on freeways still remarkably clear of traffic. And in the next 48 hours, Laura would make her furious way inland along the Sabine River, leaving Houston breathing a sigh of relief, but sweltering in the hot humid air still rolling in from the Gulf. I’m looking forward to fall!
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P.S. ~ Did you notice the pesky moiré pattern on the lower wing feathers in the first photo of the Little Blue Heron? Yep, if you click to enlarge, and then click to magnify, there is an indigo stain across the wing caused by the interference between the texture of the wing and the spacing of the grid in my camera’s light sensor. <Sigh> I guess I’ll have to learn how to fix that in Photoshop 🙂