The Morning Preen
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
A wing stretch, a head scratch, a lazy poke at wet sand, perhaps a snooze and getting feathers in order before really starting the day. All are activities of the seaside “Morning Preen” conducted each morning, full consciousness optional. Sounds a lot like this human’s morning routine: stretch, clumsily make coffee (only pour-over, of course), half comprehend some reading, forage, start the day. Birds take their morning regimen as seriously as some humans. I enjoyed the Morning Preen across several days along the coast of the Carolinas, all beneath moody sunrise skies, so common on the water.
A rare visitor to coastal areas, I had a few targets in mind, mostly ideas for photos rather than specific birds. I particularly wanted to work low-angle shorebird/wading bird shots, with an unobscured background of open water and muted colors of dawn. Sunrise walks along the beach and adjacent marshes don’t disappoint in that respect, especially when the back end of a low tide fortuitously falls during the Golden Hour. Low tide makes easy work for photographers because it makes easy work for the birds! As the water recedes, it leaves behind a buffet of macroinvertebrates—mollusks, worms, crustaceans you name it. One particular Carolina beach was overrun with tiger beetles hunting small insects; themselves snatched up by birds. When the tide begins flowing out, birds shift to their favorite exposed place, whether a sandy beach or stinky saltmarsh…depends on who you ask. Whatever the preferred substrate, it’s no cheesy all-day buffet, this is breakfast at the Waldorf.
As I walked away from the car, it was already hot and humid, though the sun had barely broken the horizon. Through stunted oaks and dune scrub, I followed a trail to the water. There, the temperature was bearable with air moving just so to keep deer flies and gnats at bay. I made the short trek to Rat Island, walking the hard, wet sand in the wave line. When water leaves an adjacent marsh at low tide, Rat Island is one with the main island. This area provided the perfect breakfast spread of exposed sand and mud, all where Rat Creek, Block Island Creek, and Lighthouse Creek enter the Atlantic after flowing lazily through the miles of marshes surrounding Charleston. Though early, birds had already begun to congregate.
I heard them before I saw them, dry “kleeps”, followed by mournful whistling and high-pitched rattling. American Oystercatchers have been a longtime photo-nemesis. I’ve seen them up and down the Atlantic Coast, but never had award-winning looks. That all changed when I rounded the point of Rat Island. Not far from ancient oaks, dead and bleached by saltwater, an extreme low tide had exposed a small bed of mussels and oysters. In the muddy sand, two pairs of these commanding shorebirds foraged. Their plumage of black and white accentuated by flame-orange bills and pink legs.
I found myself lying near the birds in salt marsh outflow: stinky, deep mud. I picked my way in and out carefully to avoid an oyster cut like the one that left a scar from exploring salt marshes years ago. Eventually, like most birds I observed foraging in the tidal zone, both pairs worked their way up the sand to nearby dunes and disappeared to feed young. I was struck by the view one provided as it made its exit. Its climb up a steep section of beach reminded me of photos I’ve seen of camels traversing desert dunes, evoking a sense of surreal, wild adventure.
Following the oystercatcher distraction, Willets were most abundant. This tall shorebird is ubiquitous and breeds on both coasts of North America in the form of two distinct subspecies, Eastern and Western...ah, the utility of bird names. I’ve always been drawn to them despite their prevalence. Settling into a prone position on damp sand, I snapped away as one foraged in the surf. Among the more robust shorebirds in tidal areas, Willets don’t care that they stand in the path of incoming waves and do little to avoid them. Shorter, smaller shorebirds typically dodge the water, but not Willets.
Soon, it crossed my path on long legs and moved up into a shallow channel cut by water leaving the adjacent salt marsh. It met with several like-minded companions to preen and snooze in a puddle. Comrades included more Willets and a few Short-billed Dowitchers, a pleasant surprise. Dowitchers are a shorebird that breed in subarctic regions, where they get in late and leave early, avoiding all chance of cold weather on both ends. That’s why three were present on the beaches of South Carolina in mid-July, early for many of the continent’s migratory species. The disparate group settled in to snooze and preen for the better part of an hour. I spent most of that time lying near them in the sand.
The shorebirds and I were in a prime spot, an area where water from the salt marsh flowed out with the tide. Not only did this leave some nice pools to assist the Morning Preen, but the enriched water provided excellent sustenance for diners. My time at the pool saw a number of interesting visitors. At least eight species visited, including Wilson’s Plover; threatened in the present Carolina and endangered in several other states across its small range. For the most part, Wilson’s Plovers stuck to the dune vegetation, venturing out but a few times to grab a snack for hidden nestlings.
Many of these shorebirds have been greatly affected by human impacts on coastal areas. Despite the fact that odds are against us when building adjacent to sandy beaches or on drained salt marshes, it occurs at an alarming rate. With rising sea levels a fact, things are likely to get worse for sensitive dune and beach ecosystems that have already been pushed right up to the water by development. Where I found myself in the present story was north of Folly Beach, South Carolina. Sleepy by the standards of some American beaches, it’s still quite busy and built up. However, I enjoyed two mornings at a preserve set aside in part for breeding shorebirds and other coastal community members. While I had access to the shoreline, just ten meters from the water, dunes were cordoned off by signs and ropes imploring humans not to interfere with the creation of future generations of their seaside neighbors. From what I could tell, South Carolina was doing a decent job. I had a different experience in North Carolina, where the same cannot necessarily be said.
This is where my mind wandered lying in the sand among the birds. While waiting in vain for the dowitchers to wake up and begin feeding, Least Terns came and went. These tiny terns are special to me; one of the few breeding residents my native Arkansas shares with our coasts. While their coastal populations are doing okay, the inland populations along the Mississippi River and its western tributaries are not. Though some of this may be natural given the tumultuous nature of rivers, it certainly has not been helped by our attempts to tame them and create impoundments that cover prime sand and gravel bars for breeding. In spite of it all, they still eke out a living. The first Least Terns I ever saw were bringing fish from the Arkansas River up to the gravel roof of a shopping center. There, a nest of hungry young waited. Ingenuity in the face of misfortune! The Carolinian Least Terns had life a bit easier. I enjoyed the majesty of their gleaming white plumage as tern after tern came in for a morning bath.
Eventually, a couple of them felt feisty enough to move in for what must have been round two of breeding this year. As I melted into the sand, I couldn’t believe the display that was going on nearby. After a brief flight, a male landed with a small fish. The two began a parade, circling one another, as the male gently shook his head so the fish’s silver scales glinted in the morning sun. Occasionally, the female would stoop as if she were ready to mate, but as the male approached she would back away. Their circling, head-wagging dance went on for about fifteen minutes before the male finally passed his fish to the female and they mated.
Sundry other gulls and terns inhabit this same ecosystem and came to visit the pool. Among the most interesting was another personal favorite, Black Tern. A breeding resident of North American prairies and inland marshes, these few I saw were probably early migrants. They stopped for a brief rest near me before continuing about their work of foraging over the salt marshes.
I can’t talk about gulls and terns of the East Coast without mentioning Laughing Gull. It’s not possible to visit a beach without getting shat on, having your food stolen, or being screamed at by a Laughing Gull. Yet, they are important generalists whose feeding behavior ranges from helpful things like scavenging creatures that wash up on the beach, to less helpful things like eating chicks of other species. It’s easy to pass them by, but a close inspection of a Laughing Gull in breeding plumage won’t leave you disappointed.
As I lay on the sand, I began to feel a creeping behind me. The tide was coming back in. Time to go. Already, the point I’d rounded to get to the Morning Preen spot had disappeared under the water, requiring me to wade out. As I left, different creatures were benefitting from prey items pushed in by the incoming tide: several bottlenose dolphins foraged within feet of me! So cool. If I were one of those crazy Yellowstone tourists, I probably could’ve ridden them out to sea.
Now, I’ve mostly focused on what was happening in the intertidal area of the beach, but adjacent salt marshes teemed with birdlife too. While shorebirds, gulls, and terns stuck to foraging mostly along the sandy surfline, larger wading birds stuck to the muddy marshes. My Most Wanted #1 was Clapper Rail. Parallel to my desire of hunting owls wherever I go, I clearly have a knack for the obscure. It often leaves me disappointed in the moment and pleasantly surprised when I least expect it. Such was the case after peeping a Clapper in a marsh opening on Rat Island, but a ghostly shadow passing through cordgrass is all that came of the encounter.
As I drove back to the house, I decided to take a detour through a residential area abutting a large saltmarsh. Passing an opening in the marsh, three Clapper Rails were engaging in the morning preen near the road! I quietly pulled over and crept down to the marsh. Thanks to whoever dumped oyster shells, as it was the only thing that kept me from sinking to my knees. Hiding behind cordgrass (not easy to do when your 6’4”) one of the rails and I peered out at each other before returning to our respective journeys. As I climbed out of the marsh, you can imagine the strange conversation I had with someone walking their dog nearby.
Another day, another Morning Preen session, only this time in North Carolina on a piece of land between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River. Things here were altogether different. Beginning at sunrise, much of the beach is covered in tents to protect pasty tourists from the beating sun that sneaks up on you, disguised by the cool sea breeze. Here, dune habitat is merely a narrow strip between houses and the water, hard pressed to support any nesting birds. In other areas, there are no longer dunes, but giant boulders to protect what’s left of the shore. In other places still, wide strips of dunes are protected, but with an even wider four-wheel drive road on one side that leads to the beach.
As in South Carolina, Willets were plentiful times ten! En masse, they foraged in the surf, which was more violent in the present, North Carolina. As I mentioned earlier, Willets seem not to care. In contrast, shorter legged shorebirds prefer to avoid the strong surf. Sanderlings make their living by foraging for a split second before running up the beach, pursued by water. I watched with enjoyment as a small flock darted beneath the larger Willets. The Sanderlings were skittish and it didn’t help that it was harder for me to become one with the sand here, with a threat of being washed out to sea and all. But the beach was busy, so I have a runner to thank for pushing the little birds my direction. In the end, they passed me warily and continued foraging down the beach.
It happened again as a beach biker with the largest tires I’ve ever seen, drove them back the other direction. This North Carolina beach was more chaotic than the South Carolina protected area I’d enjoyed the previous week. Still, birds were abundant, though I imagine they may be less successful overall. While the “primitive” four-wheel drive area appeared to be intensely monitored by the state (banded birds, marked turtle nests), you can’t tell birds that feed in the intertidal to stay behind their protective dune markers all day.
In North Carolina, beach driving is allowed in many places you wouldn’t expect, like certain protected national seashores…yikes. It doesn’t take much internet searching to find heart wrenching photos of vehicle-killed shorebird nestlings and sea turtles in coastal four-wheel drive areas. This includes the threatened Piping Plover, which I observed running amuck in vehicle ruts on a previous trip to the region.
Piping Plovers made themselves scarce this trip, but similarly-sized Semipalmated Plovers made a brief appearance as I followed the Sanderlings. Like Sanderlings, they’re not a resident that’s used to all the people. The tiny Semipalms got the heck out pretty fast upon spotting a runner coming towards them.
North Carolina tourists were early on the draw. With sunrise come and gone, it didn’t take long for the beach to begin to fill with activity. Just as things got busy, a migrant Black-bellied Plover came in to join a quick feeding frenzy before departing for a more remote area of beach.
As I left, resident Willets—clearly not caring much about the humans—settled in for a snoozing and preening session on a dry rise in the sand. They came right back to this spot after a couple guys (adults) ran to scare them. Humans on all sides and development encroaching, they probably weren’t thinking as far into their future as I was when I left them.
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the beach just as much as the next land-locked person. There’s something incredibly healing in resting your feet on warm sand, listening to water crashing as it drowns out the sound of another group of people sitting nearby. But there are things we need to figure out in order to preserve that feeling both for us and the birds that were here long before.