Seabirds Along the Shore - Our Beachwalk CompanionsFeb 22, 2023 11:54AM ● By Anne Batty
by Anne Batty
Take a walk on any of San Clemente’s beaches and you are bound to encounter and even be accompanied by a variety of sea birds. Sharing the beach and ocean with these intriguing creatures is just another privilege we ocean-loving residents are fortunate to enjoy. And because these marine birds make our walks more enjoyable, you might find interesting the following fun facts we have uncovered about these fascinating creatures and their habits.
Surprisingly, sanderlings, often called sandpipers or shorebirds, breed not in the warmth of the California sun, but rather in the cold of the high arctic tundra; migrating south in the fall. Considered to be a symbol of grace and beauty these small, plump, drab little creatures, are one of the most common birds seen along our beaches. Their lack of a hind toe is a physical modification that enables them to run more swiftly across sandy surfaces. And as one of the most frenzied of our beach visitors, their constant trek back and forth, dodging the waves and probing the sands rewards them with a delicious meal of sand crabs and marine invertebrates. Who hasn’t marveled at the energy, or been entertained while watching these fascinating little busy bodies perform their dance on our local beaches?
Found on every continent on earth, sea gulls are scavengers, gleaning what they can from the surface of the ocean, beach, or land. They can drink both fresh and salt water due to a special pair of glands located above their eyes that enables them to flush the salt from their systems through openings in their bill. Bold hunters they have little fear of humans, often trailing fishing boats hoping to snatch from their catch, or swooping down on a beach picnic to grab food right from someone’s hand. Loners, they tend to mate for life pairing with their mate to incubate their eggs, and feed and protect their young. In Native American symbolism, the seagull represents a carefree attitude, versatility and freedom, but truth be told, they can be bold and pesky little creatures.
Often referred to as egrets or bitterns, herons are long-legged wading birds related to storks, ibises and flamingos. Seen both day and night, they are patient birds wading slowly along the shore then standing statue-like until spotting and striking their prey. When they strike, their beak acts as a spear, stabbing fish, frogs and other small water animals for food. Fickle birds, they choose a different mate each year, but they do share in the raising of the offspring. In Native American cultures herons symbolize peace, tranquility, patience and good luck.
Pelicans enjoy being in warm water regions, thus their visits to our San Clemente shores. One of the most unique things about the American White Pelican is the fact that they grow a large bump or horn on their beak. Only occurring during mating season, it demonstrates that they are ready to breed. After mating season and the laying of eggs, they lose the horn, only to have it grow back during the next year. Although not entirely monogamous, they do stay with one partner throughout breeding season, but do not pair for life. Once the season ends the two birds part ways and may or may not return to the same partner the following year. Symbolically Pelicans are known to represent many traits; wisdom, safety, humility, charity, nurture, generosity and even direction. But due to a process called “pelican vulning” (whereby the mother punctures her chest to let out blood to feed her babies) the pelican is most revered in many cultures for its nurturing generosity.
In the same category as the heron, the elegant Great White or Snowy Egret can be found on SoCal shores year-round. At their best during breeding season, males have neon green facial skin and long, wispy feathers (aigrettes) extending from their backs to their tales which they flare out like a peacock during courtship. Coveted for their feathers as decoration for lady’s hats in the 1930s, these birds were almost hunted into extinction. Said to dance in the shallows on golden slippers (yellow feet), they have many ways to ambush their prey. They often stand motionless while foraging for food, but also run swiftly flushing the sands with shuffling feet, or hover or dip-fish with feet flying just above the water’s surface. Native American cultures believe the egret to be a symbol of harmony, balance, peace patience and mediation.
Writers/editors are always looking for a good and unusual story to tell their readers, and this particular article has an interesting caveat.
Like most San Clementeans I frequent our local beaches. On recent strolls I have been intrigued by the antics of our local shorebirds, and I began thinking that some fun facts about them might be fodder for a good article. For the next few days as I gave the subject some thought, I was totally unaware of the unusual circumstance that was about to occur.
Living at the north end of town in the Shorecliffs area I often approach my home via Avenida Vaquero. One day while traveling this road I spotted a white egret perched atop a car. I didn’t think too much of it at the time as the golf course had just installed a fountained lake on Vaquero near the ocean and I thought that might have attracted the bird. But a few days later traveling Vaquero once again, upon entering my street, Calle Vallarta, I spotted a white egret perched again atop a car, this time just two houses away from mine. Now I was intrigued. What was this bird doing so far from the ocean? Was it injured, or just resting? Why was it here?
A few days later when I opened my front door to get the mail, much to my surprise a white egret was perched on my front lawn. It stood stoically patient on one leg as passers-by stopped, got out of their cars, and took photos. Emboldened but not wanting to disturb the bird, I crept around my home in order to get a better shot. Seemingly undisturbed my visitor completely ignored me and my picture-taking.
As I stood observing my guest and pondering the situation, a concerned neighbor stopped by. She shared a photo she had taken on a previous day of the egret perched under my eave near my front picture window. We stood watching the bird together, both wondering why it was standing on my lawn a mile and a half from the ocean for a second time. Thinking it might be injured we cautiously approached hoping to get a better look. But as we neared, the elegant avian, apparently uninjured, spread it wings and flew away.
To my knowledge the great white bird has never revisited my home, but it has certainly left me with many questions. Why did I keep seeing it? Why was it on my front lawn twice, or perhaps unbeknownst to me maybe even more? Some might say it was an omen. Who knows? For me, it was confirmation of the idea for an article, and definitely food for thought. And I must admit …the memory of those unexpected visitations by this elegant creature will linger with me for a very long time.