Birding in July, on the coast, is not for the faint of heart. Not only is the temperature pushing triple digits in this hottest summer in recent memory, but the stuffiness, the clammy humidity that just “feels like the sea” (not to be confused with mal de mer), is almost overwhelming. Fortunately, this birder will not be daunted, and days by the ocean come along far too infrequently for my taste so on my one morning available on a family trip to New Hanover County I trudged out to Fort Fisher for a look and whatever happened to be about.
And it wasn’t much, I have to say. Birding in July is not for the faint of heart for weather reasons alone, it’s darn slow out there, and the migratory birds that make birding the coast so exciting three seasons out of the year have yet to arrive. Those that remain for the summer are a trio of terns, various waders, the omnipresent Laughing Gulls and a couple shorebirds, the most apparent of which are the gaudy in plumage and voice American Oystercatchers.
The tide was high and going out when I arrived at Federal Point. The rocky groin that juts out into the intercoastal waterway hosted little but a trio of Snowy Egrets and a single Spotted Sandpiper. Sandwich and Royal Terns flew back and forth from the colony on uninhabited Zeke’s Island just to the south. I was resigning myself to a fairly pedestrian morning birding when the relative silence was broken by the clamor of a quartet of American Oystercatchers whirling with reckless abandon over the sound. Three of the birds were in hot pursuit of the fourth, and upon closer inspection it became clear that I was witnessing the shorebird version of the early summer chase I’d seen around my own yard. Fledgling birds, still too young to fend for themselves, harassing their parent for that last scrap of food before their fully kicked out of the nest, or in the case of these Oystercatchers, the shallow scrape in the sand.
It was upon my return home that I realized that the birds could be differentiated by the extent of molt in the primaries. The adult (or adults, I was never sure if there was a second), showed symmetrical molt on their inner primaries, which you can see in any of these photos. The young birds, alternately, were fully feathered, coming so recently as their did from their downy cover. They won’t molt till this time next year, at which point they’ll be indistinguishable from their parents.
The chase began when the adult bird came blasting past me into the flat from parts unknown, crop full to bursting, at which point it circled the area on the groin where the young birds would congregate, instigating the games.
At this point the chase would be on in earnest, as the birds circled, dove, and dodged each other, screaming the whole time. When they get going they’re louder than even the Laughing Gulls whose famously raucous calls are the soundtrack of the east coast beach summer. For upwards of ten minutes they did their thing, until some sort of Oystercatcher truce was called and the birds resettled on the rocks, with the parent(s) heading off to hunting grounds more amenable.
To do it all over again a few minutes later.