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Birds of a feather

THIS MONTH'S THEME: BEACHCOMBING

Think about all the things you do at the beach with your eyes pointed downward. Hunting for shells. Watching where you walk so you don't step on a sharp rock or someone's towel. Putting on sunscreen.

But there's something you can see on the ground that should cause you to look up: the tracks of the beach's feathered residents, the birds.

Seabirds aren't the reason most of us go to the beach, but imagine a day at the shore without the sound of a hungry seagull overhead or the sight of the sweet sanderling, dodging the surf as it hunts for food.

The water is an important part of the habitat of coastal birds. They get their food from the ocean. Of course, beachgoers also contribute to their meals. There's probably no quicker way to get an up-close peek at a seagull than to throw a piece of food in the air. He or she will come flying!

Although the birds put on a good show, remember that you're messing with the natural order of things. Birds that become dependent on humans for food often hang around where people are fishing and get caught in lines and hooks. Also, snack foods have little nutritional value for birds.

Here is a look at some of Florida's coastal birds, categorized by how they hunt for food:

DIVING BIRDS: These birds float or swim on the water, and then nab their prey under the water. The double-crested cormorant is a common sight in South Florida and a good example of a diving bird. It is an excellent swimmer and can dive as deep as 25 feet for food. The cormorant spends a lot of time making sure it looks good, sunning and preening on docks and rocks.

AERIAL SEARCHERS: Many of the birds you see at the beach are in this category. These birds spy their prey from the air and then dive down to snare them. Some of the common aerial searchers are seagulls, terns and pelicans.

There are several varieties of gulls and they can be difficult to distinguish. The ring-billed gull is the easiest to identify. It has a dark ring near the tip of its bill. The laughing gull is the only gull that lives in Florida year-round. (The rest are like our winter residents, spending part of the year in a place where they like the weather better.) In the summer the laughing gull's head is black and in the winter it is gray.

Humans have greatly affected the feeding habits of seagulls. In fact, landfills and dumps have become a major source of food for gulls.

Terns are smaller and sleeker than gulls and have forked tails, whereas gulls have rounded or squared tails. The most common terns are named least, royal, common and Caspian. The least tern is a threatened species, which is just a bit better off than an animal that is endangered.

The brown pelican, which says "beach" like no other bird, is an odd duck. While it looks goofy and clumsy on land, it is a daring and graceful animal in flight. The brown pelican nearly became extinct in the 1960s until the government banned a pesticide called DDT.

Pelicans are a silent contrast to the loud squawking seagulls. Only very young pelicans make any sound at all. To eat, the young pelican reaches deep into a parent's throat for fish. When a young pelican is threatened, the adults toss rotten fish at the offenders.

Two other common aerial searchers are the black skimmer and the frigatebird. The black skimmer, which is most often sighted in the winter, flies very close to the surface, with its lower bill in the water. When it hits food, the top of the bill snaps shut. This hunting technique works well at night, when many of the sea's creatures come to the surface to look for food.

The frigatebird, also called man-o'-war, is an excellent glider and can fly for long periods. Frigatebirds probably aren't the most popular fellows in the animal kingdom because of their unfriendly habit of stealing food from other birds midflight.

SHOREBIRDS: These are the comedians of the seabird world. It is fun to watch them hop and skip around the shoreline as they look for food and try to stay dry. For amateur birdwatchers, these feathered friends are the easiest to observe, but are difficult to identify because of their similar sizes and colors.

Shorebirds congregate at the edge of the sea, using their beaks to hunt for food in the wet sand.

Sanderlings are the smallest of the shorebirds and are common all year long. Willets, also year-round residents, are long-necked, long-legged birds and bigger than most other shorebirds. They probe the sand with their bills for marine worms and little crabs.

In the spring, you can identify the dunlin by its bright rust and black coat. Its thick bill is curved slightly downward, and you'll know the dunlin by the way it follows the breaking surf, back and forth, back and forth.

It can be fun to pick out the different birds at the beach. Look skyward occasionally, and you may be treated to the daredevil dive of a least tern or the aerodynamic games of a pelican.

Sources: The Nature of Florida's Beaches by Cathie Katz, Atlantic Press; Florida's Fabulous Seashells by Winston Williams, World Publications; Beachcomber's Guide to Florida Marine Life by William S. Alevizon, Gulf Publishing Co.

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