Winter Ducks, Shorebirds, and Gulls, on South Padre Island, Texas (Knowing Your Area During Different Seasons is Crucial to ID Success)

By Alexandria Simpson

This month's photo quiz took us to South Padre Island, in Cameron County, Texas. All photos were taken in February 2008. The main point of this quiz is to help you understand that knowing the area you commonly bird, and what birds are found in what seasons, is as important as learning plumages. It will greatly improve your birding when you know what to expect. This information can be discovered through your own observations and by listening to the experts of your area.

1.  Photo #1, Feb 26, 2008, South Padre Island, Cameron Co, TX

First glance tells us these are obviously ducks; five of the six are male, which helps us narrow them down to either Canvasback or Redhead. They appear to have dark heads and breasts, like Canvasback but backs are intermediate between the almost pure white of Canvasback and the definite gray of Redhead. The biggest clue that birders use, the bill and forehead, happens to be tucked in their feathers, but looking closely, the back of the head does look more like Redhead. Perhaps range might help? According to The Sibley Guide to Birds (and other field guides), both species are present in this area in the winter, but don’t freak out yet. As I am sure most of you know, sometimes certain species listed as being in your area are hardly ever found there. This is the key to solving our mystery ducks. Canvasbacks are rarely found in the area at any time of the year, but Redheads are quite common in the winter. The following photo, of the same ducks (taken just a few minutes later), makes the ID even more clear.

  Help with Photo #1 South Padre Island, Cameron Co, TX


2.  Photo #2 Feb 8, 2008 South Padre Island, Cameron Co, TX

Oh, boy, a small shorebird. Again, knowing the area in the various seasons is pretty important. Many shorebird species come through during migration, but this is February. Since it is a bit early for migrants, we can rule out Spotted Sandpiper, which often feeds on rocks; no other migrant shorebird I’ve seen here looks like this. The bill looks fairly short—shorter than the head, therefore, we can rule out two other common winter species, Sanderling and Dunlin. None of the small plovers seem to fit this bird either. The size and shape aren’t right for Killdeer.  Purple and Rock Sandpipers are commonly found on rocks and are occasionally seen here during the winter, but this bird is too slender and lacks the purple-gray of those species. Take a look at those yellowish-orange legs. The only wintering species that matches up with this bird is Ruddy Turnstone, which is very common on the beaches and often on the rocks.

3.  Photo #3 Feb 8, 2008 South Padre Island, Cameron Co, TX

Here we have two gulls. The one closer to us is obviously an immature or subadult, because of the mottled brown and white appearance. There are only three common species in the winter on South Padre Island: Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring gulls  Laughing Gull, the most common gull species found year-round here, can be ruled out because of bulky appearance, pink bill tipped with black, and lack of gray, which is present on winter subadult Laughers. That leaves us with Ring-billed and Herring gulls. Both of these species have mottled appearances and pink legs, feet, and bills. Looking at the top of the left wing, there is a lack of gray, which is generally present on first winter Ring-bills. It is also rather bulky and the legs are rather pink for a Ring-bill, so I am going with Herring Gull. (And, of course, don't forget the Great Blue Heron peeking in from the left-hand side).