Americans having sex – what a laugh!

Today was an easy day – mooched around the area of Bull’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina and Charleston itself.

Charleston has lots of ‘old’ buildings – but it is a very pretty place.  You have to cross a very impressive modern bridge to get to it and then it’s quaint and southern and nice.  And I’m sure its southern  inhabitants occasionally quaintly and nicely make love with each other but the sex I saw was happening up the road a bit.

I did some mooching near the shore as there was breeze enough to keep the mosquitoes away.  Mooching is good – a good mooch always produces some birds.  My mooch was hanging around a jetty watching the crabmen and oystermen land their catches.

And as they did, shorebirds of the small variety, peeps, ran around feeding and they were close enough for me to have really good looks at Dunlin, Semi-palmated Plovers (very like our Ringed Plover), Grey Plover, Semi-palmated Sandpipers (there’s a whole lot of semi-palmation going on around here), Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers (like our Common Sandpiper but with spots).  Also more distant were Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, American Oystercatcher and Willets.  None was having sex.

Nearby were Gull-billed Terns, Green Heron and Bald Eagle – not bad for a mooch, I thought.

But also there were Laughing Gulls and they were the ones having lots of sex.  It’s interesting (is it? – you tell  me) that our small dark-headed gull and the US version are both called ‘laughing’ except we only do that to ours in its scientific name and in its common name we saddle it with ‘black-headed’ even though we know the head is chocolate brown.

Photo: Steve Blain

But Laughing Gulls are well named – they have a laughing cry – not least when having sex.  And they seem to have quite a lot of sex and it lasts for quite a long time – although, I guess it depends to what you are accustomed.

It’s the male that does all the laughing.  And this is when he is perched on the back of the female, trying to position his undertail parts correctly and is pecking (could be kissing) his female on the bill and head. And he laughs throughout – loudly.  Almost to draw attention to the performance.

Didn’t work with me – I only watched about 20 times during my mooch.  I was hardly paying attention at all.  And you could get the impression that nor was the female ‘involved’.  She just stood there for the most part – occasionally uttering a fairly quiet call (of impatience? of encouragement?) and shifting from one foot to the other now and again.

Her foot shifting once, in one pair, resulted in the couple twirling through 120 degrees whilst the male laughed away.

But, as I say, I was hardly noticing.

Today’s soundtrack was a compilation of US songs chosen by a friend at the RSPB – very aptly chosen.  Although the one about the man who lied about being the outdoor type was wickedly funny.

Birdlist stands in the low 120s for anyone interested.  Any guesses as to the total after another 5 weeks and crossing the USA through the Great Plains and into the Rockies before heading for Los Angeles?


Southern belles

The females of the deep South have a reputation for beauty, charm and politeness.  I’ve now encountered a few.

The waitress at the Dunes restaurant at breakfast today called me ‘Honey’ as I ate my eggs (medium, sunny side up)), grits (my first time – I was until today a grits-virgin) and hot cakes ((just another name for pancakes to confuse the English) more times that I recall ever being called it before.

The old lady running a gas station somewhere where I was lost was very helpful in directing me to where I needed to be without making me feel a fool.

But today there were females all over me – they were very attentive.  They all wanted a piece of me and actually bit.  Some of them needed a good slapping.  But, in a stable door and bolting horse sort of way, I now do have mosquito repellent.

I woke at 6 when the alarm went off – a legacy of a former resident of my motel room but a useful time to awake. And I was on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge by 7.  I’ve been there before and it’s great.  The shorebirds mixed the familiar (Dunlin, Turnstone, Grey Plover) with the less familiar (including Willet, Marbled Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher).  A ruff flew past and was probably a ‘good’ record but didn’t excite me as much as the late-staying Iceland Gull and Bufflehead, the Louisiana Herons or the Black Skimmers.

The thing that drove away the mosquitoes was the rain which started early enough for me to be ‘Honeyed’ at breakfast before heading off to try to see what black bears do in the woods but I am none the wiser as they were doing it out of sight of me.

Photo: Steve Blain

But I did see Wild Turkeys and several most amazing and lovely Prothonatory Warblers (what a name!).  These yellow-headed warblers inhabit mosquito-ridden swamps (such as at Alligator River – didn’t see any alligators either) but are so beautiful that the bites are worth it.

I will now go to bed thinking about southern belles – or at least I’ll be scratching my mosquito bites.

Today’s soundtrack: Frank Sinatra and a compilation of ‘American anthems’.


On the road

Actually, I did go back to Rock Creek Park this morning, but to a new bit with some different people.  Greg Butcher, the Conservation Director of National Audubon was kind enough to take me birding and on a stroll through the park next to Rock Creek itself.

We added to the warbler list with Tennessee Warbler being a good edition, but also Swainson’s Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker and Great Crested Flycatcher being good editions to my Rock Creek list.  And Red-winged Blackbird, Brown Thrasher, Solitary Sandpiper and Osprey being additions elsewhere.

I’ve been busy in Washington DC – but it’s been a good type of busy – birding, lunching, meeting people and a little bit of sightseeing.  Here are a few thoughts about the capital:

  • the White House is still there
  • the Capitol area is very nice
  • the Tabard Inn is quirky but would still be my first choice of Washington Hotel – no TVs, good food, nice staff and quaint.
  • there are amazing numbers of starlings and house sparrows in DC considering how rare they are getting in the UK
  • for fans of the West Wing, I met a Republican Josh Lyman figure (and if he is reading this blog – Drive with Strength!)
  • most of the conversations about the environment and nature conservation are similar to ones happening in the UK and Europe
  • I wish there were a Rock Creek Park close to Central London
  • The Museum of the American Indian is a lovely building but was rather disappointing – I didn’t learn much

But I have now swapped the smell of power in Washington for the smell of seaspray at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  I dawdled and got lost on the way but still managed some good large birds from the car – Osprey, Turkey Vulture, Brown Pelican and Killdeer.

It’s just occurred to me that if I were still working for the RSPB I would be on a Council weekend in South Wales.  I miss my friends, of course, but the Louisiana shrimps on the way down, in a diner, were very good, it’s shirt sleeve weather and I probably would have missed the pelicans in Wales…

The soundtrack in the car today was Bruce Springsteen (greatest hits) and Carly Simon (also greatest hits).


Rock Creek Park 2

Yesterday was great, and today was even better.  Better in several senses – I was less jet-lagged, we had some good birds and we had some great views of a stunning Magnolia Warbler.

The Rock Creek Park Crowd were regathering together in this green, wooded area within Washington DC soon after 615am.  Warbler species added to my list today were Cape May, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.

Whilst many sightings were at the top of trees the Magnolia Warbler was close and at eye-level.  What a stunning sight! A really beautiful bird.

Although I’ve only been to Rock Creek Park twice in my life, it has now entered my soul – those migrating warblers bring back hope and sound and colour to the world each spring.

I’m grateful to Wallace Kornack for being such a kind and knowledgeable host and to the rest of the Rock Creek Park Crowd for making me feel so welcome.  Good birding to you all in the mornings ahead.


Confusing spring warblers

My old copy of the Peterson field guide has a couple of plates of confusing fall warblers.  And they do look confusing.

But this morning I got confused too – in the famous Rock Creek Park.  I joined a group of birders and we were looking for migrating warblers high up in the trees.    My guide was Wallace Kornack who certainly knows his birds – he was a great mentor for me.  But the other birders present were all very helpful and friendly to a UK birder who doesn’t know his Black-throated Green from his Magnolia.  Thank you from me to all of them.

We saw and heard a lot.  There were: Black-throated Greens and Black-throated Blues, Parulas, lots of Yellow-rumps, American Redstarts, Black and Whites, Yellowthroat, Bay-breasteds (maybe the best one of the lot if you know what you’re doing) and Nashville.  There were others but these are the ones I saw or heard.

And they don’t all look the same but many of them are yellow and black and white with some blue or red or brown.  And they hide behind leaves.  And the sexes are different. And they stay at the tops of the trees. And, and, and… And they move like lightening.

But they are beautiful – really beautiful.  And they are amazing and lovely.

So I am going back for another lesson in lessening confusion with Wallace tomorrow.  And I am really looking forward to it.