Eye Level Encounters with Seven Species of Waders That Prey Together
Of the more than 10,000 known species of birds in the world, Mexico is known and appreciated as host to over 10% of that total. There are several locales around this beautiful country where bird watching opportunities can number in the hundreds of species. But there may be none so accessible or more abundant in species as found in the Morua Estuary, just a few hours’ drive from Arizona, Nevada, Southern California and New Mexico.
Located about 15 minutes southeast of the peaceful little beach town of Puerto Peñasco (aka Rocky Point) on the Sea of Cortez in Sonora, this small (only about 2700 acres) but very important ecosystem hosts over 140 species of endemic and migratory birds that either nest, live, migrate to for the winter, or stop over enroute to destinations further south.
So dense is the bird population, in fact, that we had to choose just seven shore bird species in the family of waders for this article. If our readers indicate their interest, we will continue writing about the birds of Morua Estuary as a series.
The Morua Estuary is easily kayaked by birders of all ages. This is because the hyper-fluctuating tide rises and fills the shallow aqua ways turning them into a virtual emerald ribbon-like network, gently pushing the kayaks through and around the salt grass marshes for miles back into the important wetlands ecosystem. It also appeals to the experienced and neophyte bird watcher alike as the natural geography allows birders to kayak at eye level among hundreds of endemic and migratory birds.
Nature benevolently took a lot of stress out of the vast family of waders that winter in the shallow shores of the estuarine ecosystems that feed a great variety of marine life into the northern Sea of Cortez. She gave these gregarious species bills in a variety of different shapes and lengths that allow them to not only live interactively together but even forage and feed in the same marshes and shore lines without competition.
Here are just seven species of shore birds photographed during a short two hour trip by kayak into the grassy marshes and prairie-like islets of this oh so ecologically important estuary. Of course, we topped off the trip with a lunch of fresh oysters that are grown right off the beach where we launched the kayak. And if you are an oyster aficionado, whether kayaking or not, a trip to “El Barco” Oyster restaurant at Morua should be on your “must do” list when visiting Puerto Peñasco. They are cultivated by the only women’s oyster farming cooperative in Mexico—in itself a great story, alas, for another time!
Willet: Next to Gulls and Pelicans, these long-legged waders with strong bills seem to be the most ubiquitous shore birds around the beaches of Puerto Peñasco during the winter months. Their gray winter plumage will blossom brown in the spring before they migrate to their favorite wet meadows or muddy shores around the northern prairie states, Canadian provinces and east to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. A member of the large Sandpiper (Scolopacidae) family, you might mistake the Willet for his smaller cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs. The Willet is unmistakable however when it takes flight and displays its striking black and white wing patterns.
Marbled Godwit: These are the second largest of the Sandpiper family, Spending autumn to spring feeding on insects, crustaceans and some aquatic plants on the beaches of Puerto Peñasco and its estuaries. Their long two-toned (pink fading to a black tip) bill with a slight upward curve and brownish camo feather patterns make them identifiable– if you can spot them in the grass. For summer nesting, Godwits travel to their favorite grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and western Canada In flight, look for a gallant wing span with cinnamon lining. They hang and fly and forage the muddy marshes with their Sandpiper cousins in the estuaries.
Long-billed Curlew: The largest of the 47 member Sandpiper (Scolopacidae) family (grows up to 26”). You’ll recognize this Curlew species by its freakishly long bill that curves downward at the end. Its length is used with great skill to probe deeply into soft mud for small crabs and other invertebrates. As agile fliers with well camouflaged coloring of cinnamon brown and dark mottling, Curlews prefer open grassy areas over seeking cover from predators. They were hunted to near extinction until the mid-nineteen hundreds for their tasty meat and are now a protected species.
Whimbrel: Though it is a bit smaller than the Long-billed Curlew, it looks very similar in a grassy field except for the much shorter curved bill. The Whimbrel is a widespread migratory species that breeds on Arctic Tundra, migrates summers in Alaska and northern Canada, winters along U.S. Pacific coast southward to the beaches and estuaries of the Sea of Cortez and even down to South America.
American Oystercatcher: This group of waders is uniquely identified by their conspicuous color contrasts of bright orange or red bills with matching eyeliner, black and/or brown on top and white underneath, with nearly fluorescent pink/flesh colored legs. You can catch Oystercatchers on sea shores worldwide except for polar and some tropical regions of Africa and South East Asia. Their massive long bills are strong enough to pry open mollusks. Other favorite repasts of Oystercatchers include echinoderms, fish and crabs.
Snowy Egret: Snowy Egrets make up the smaller long-legged waders of the Heron (Ardeidae) family, 10” to 20” smaller than their first cousin, the Great Egret, and distinguished by their snow white plumage, long neck, black bill, dark legs and yellow feet. A very agile bird, the Snowy has several effective fishing techniques including sprinting around in the water to stir up small fish and shrimp which it will spear or snap up. Snowies also work in teams with other Snowies as well as different species. Or these crafty creatures might just stand very still and patiently await a passing morsel to snap up..
Great Egret: Great Egrets are identified by their snow white plumage, yellow bill, black legs and feet, and, of course their size, which can be over three feet of mostly neck and legs. So beautiful is their plumage that the Great Egret was nearly wiped out around the end of the 19th century by the demand for their feathers to…to…decorate ladies hats? What a sad fad, huh? Thank goodness these beautiful creatures are now protected from such a frivolous death. On the ground, their extraordinarily long necks create a majestic ballerina-like profile. In flight the Great Egret’s seven foot wing-span is a performance of grace in fluid motion. So much so that it was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of whose objectives was to prevent further killing of birds for their feathers. The Society’s success in this endeavor is renowned.
Learn more about these and all birds at www.audobon.org . To learn more about renting kayaks or joining a kayak tour of Morua Estuary, visit www.kayakrockypoint.com or http://www.cedointercultural.org/content/view/6/8/1/1/lang,en/
This blog brought to you by Sonoran Resorts Sales Group, Jim Ringquist, Director of Sales