Anne H. Oman
March 2, 2017 11:00 a.m.
On Saturday, March 18 at 9 a.m., the Nassau Bird Club will meet at the Ribault Club parking area at Kingsley Plantation for a field trip. All are welcome, and no previous knowledge or experience is required.
It’s just before 8 am, and eight birders, dressed in layers against the damp, chilly air, huddle in a pavilion in Huguenot Park, which has recently opened after a three-month closure caused by damage from Hurricane Matthew.
“Is that an eagle out there?” someone asks, binoculars pointed at a sandbar in Fort George Inlet.
It’s low tide, and in addition to what may or may not have been an eagle, the group spots oystercatchers (black and white birds with long, straight orange-y bills and pinkish legs), a semipalmated plover (a brownish bird with a darker neck band, a dunlin (a member of the sandpiper family with a long, drooping bill), some Merganser ducks, and a black-bellied plover, which looks gray from a distance.
“I want to get a closer look at that sandbar,” says Bill George, a recovering lawyer who leads the Nassau Bird Club. “There are tons of birds out there.”
Bill and experienced birder Tammy Martin, who is a snowbird from Ohio, shoulder their powerful spotting scopes, and the group moves toward the shores of the inlet. A lone kayaker glides across the calm water, which is protected from ocean waves and winds by high dunes. While we walk, Bill, who led the Minnesota branch of the Audubon Society, answers a frequently asked question: how did you get started in birding?
“I grew up in Minnesota, and my brother and I were fascinated by birds’ nests,” he says. “And we got into bird taxidermy – picking up dead birds we found in the neighborhood. Then I saw a migrating Cape May warbler – and it wasn’t in my bird book. I realized that apparently there were a lot more birds out there, and I started exploring.”
“Are those grebes out there?” asks Cathy Ryckman, who has reached the sandy shore first.
Bill and Tammy set up the scopes, but the grebes have disappeared under water, probably on a fishing expedition. Bill is looking for marbled godwits, large cinnamon-colored birds with long, upturned bills. The godwits, which breed on northern prairies and winter on southern shores, have been sighted in the area. But, alas, not today.
“Anyone need a ruddy turnstone? They’re up close,” Bill says, pointing out some brownish, orange-legged members of the sandpiper family near the shore.
There is a ripple of excitement as Tammy spots some Bonaparte’s gulls.
“Where ? I’ve been looking for them,” asks Helen Kehrt, a Jacksonville resident who often joins the Nassau club’s outings.
They are duly pointed out: small gulls with bright white patches on their wings and a dark spot behind their eyes in winter. They are named after a nephew of Napoleon, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a prominent 19th century ornithologist.
“That looks like a Wilson’s plover moving to the right,” says Tammy, sharing her scope with Helen. “He’s got a Jimmy Durante bill.”
Bill gets out his phone and plays some recorded bird calls.
“It’s an app,” he explains. “Birds typically respond to calls.”
But, today, the back-up noise of a large sand-moving machine (the mating call of the yellow sandmover?) is drowning out the birds, so the group moves to the ocean beach.
On the beach, someone spots a royal tern, identifiable by its black-crested crown.
“He’s doing a little preening,” says Bill, “taking his morning bath.”
“There’s a whole group of black scoters out in the open water diving,” points out Cathy.
The dark, stocky ducks with bumpy bright orange bills are said to prefer crustaceans and mollusks.
The band of birders has reached the point where the ocean meets the St. John’s. Across the river in Mayport, Navy ships, in drab gray plumage, loom large. Lorraine Gawley is dispatched to scout out a path along the river and signals the group to follow.
“You just missed an eagle,” says Cathy, who is a little ahead of the group.
“Are eagles territorial? “ asks Mary Tanner, who got interested in birding after taking guided nature walks on Little Talbot Island.
“They can be,” answers Bill, then turns his attention to a group of shorebirds. “They look like sanderlings.”
“There’s a teed-up osprey — anyone want to look?” asks Tammy, offering her scope, “Teed up,” she explains to a birding neophyte, means that the bird is standing on a stick.
“There are some butterbutts,” says Lorraine, explaining that she is referring to tiny warblers. “It’s a nickname – you can see the yellow flashing when they fly.”
Lorraine modestly claims no birding expertise.
“I just go out and enjoy it,” she says. “Cathy calls it ‘the gentle sport,’ and it’s true. People are willing to share their knowledge, and their scopes. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”
Back at the parking lot, Bill talks about the next outing: “What do you think of going to Kingsley Plantation. We’ve seen a lot of shore birds. It would be nice to see some woodland birds for a change.”
Bill George’s List of Birds Sighted on February Field Trip:
Horned Grebes, Brown Pelicans, Double Crested Cormorants, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Black Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagles, Black-bellied Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, American Oystercatchers, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, Laughing Gulls, Bonaparte Gulls, Ring-billed and Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Black Skimmers, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Palm Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, and Boat-tailed Grackle.
The next field trip will meet at the Ribault Club parking area at Kingsley Plantation at 9 am on Saturday, March 18. All are welcome, and no previous knowledge or experience is required. Bring binoculars and a field guide to birds. Sun screen and insect repellent are also recommended. For more information contact Bill George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.