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Meet the flockers: There’s no such thing as a seagull, birders say

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Wendy Allen peers through her telescope and can hardly believe her good fortune. Here is a banded piping plover on the south end of Litchfield Beach at Midway Inlet.

The piping plover is an endangered species, and birders are encouraged to report their whereabouts along with the color combinations on the leg band. This bird’s signature is red flag, pink/blue split, silver band upper right, blue band lower right. “You want to report banded birds if you can read the color combination,” said Allen, manager of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “They know exactly when and where it was banded and usually the age of the bird at the time of banding. When sightings are reported, they get some idea of its migration path, where it overwinters. There’s a lot we don’t know about these guys still.”

Despite his privileged status, the piping plover has to hustle out of the way of people walking the beach, kicking the waves and the sand. “A lot of people are totally oblivious to other things on the beach besides themselves,” Allen said. “They don’t realize this is habitat for other creatures, so they just walk right through birds. It’s tough for these birds that have migrated thousands of miles. They are just trying to find a place to rest and feed.”

There are plenty of birds that spend the winter on the beaches of Georgetown County. The uneducated call them seagulls. “Before I knew birds, I used to call them all seagulls too,” Allen said. “A good birder told me there’s no such thing as a seagull.”

She points to a ring-billed gull. It’s also found looking for food in the grocery store parking lots. A laughing gull is similar but slightly smaller.

Terns are common along the shoreline. The royal tern is a “bigger guy” with a yellow/orange bill, Allen said. The royal tern is larger, of course, than the aptly-named least tern. The common tern visible at the county beaches are most likely Forster’s, Allen said. They dive for fish and put on a show for beach walkers.

A semi-palmated plover has a short, stubby bill and is more easily recognized by its partially webbed feet. Sanderlings are little guys with short legs that skitter along the edge of the shore and sea looking for food. The handsome ruddy turnstone has black markings. The boat-tailed grackle’s songs go to waste in the beach’s wind. There are sandpipers and plovers among the masses, only the experienced eye can tell the difference.

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