Look for both shorebirds and seabirds along the Gulf of Mexico and the Choctawhatchee Bay By Erika Zambello, Communications Director, Audubon Florida
Winter brings a sense of calm to our Gulf of Mexico beaches. A delightful chill means crisp, refreshing walks on the sand, or turning faces to the sun on breezy afternoons. Many of our summer birds have long since migrated, but an entirely new avian community moves in for the winter months.
Piping plovers are small shorebirds, designated as Federally threatened. After breeding in the Northeast and in the interior of the United States, they forage for food in the Southeast, along the Gulf Coast, and into the Caribbean. Pale beige above and white below, they sport bright yellow legs that can set them apart from other shorebirds. For decades they have struggled to nest on developed beaches in the summer, but recent protections and efforts to educate beach-goers about their presence has led to promising breeding years. In our neck of the woods, look for the plovers foraging at Deer Lake State Park.
Surprised beach-goers may spot large seabirds out of the water, resting on the sand at the edge of the surf line. What are they? Common loons! Black, white, and gray, this unique species breeds on freshwater lakes and ponds in the summer, then returns to the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico each winter. Anglers know that these loons can point to schools of underwater fish, for their heavy bones make them prolific divers. From the Choctawhatchee Bay to the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, these birds are everywhere from late fall to spring.
What’s black and white and cute as a button? Buffleheads! Only the size of a crow, this diminutive seabird can feed mere feet from shore or in the deepest sections of the bay. Males have a strikingly large head, which appears to glow when contrasted with the blue of the surrounding waves. Often travelling in small groups, the flocks swim quickly and dive often. If you get too close, they may take off, traveling like miniature footballs across the surface of the water.
To most, gulls all look (and sound) the same, but in our coldest half of the year smaller gulls take their places amidst the larger flocks of laughing gulls. What sets them apart? Pink legs! Bonaparte’s gulls eat small insects and fish, and have tell-tale black smudge behind their eyes. According to Partners in Flight, there are over 250,000 Bonaparte’s gulls across the world, including along our beaches.
In Walton County, winter can be our very best birding season. Keep track of what you see, and log your records into the community science project eBird.org. To learn more about Florida birds, check out fl.audubon.org.