September 7, 2008

Late Summer Arrivals Entertain With Their Antics

At the Oceanfront, one set of visitors arrives late in the summer and hangs around long after Labor Day.

They'd be the perfect visitors to extend the tourist season, except they are birds. Called sanderlings, these buff and white critters arrive en masse in late August. Many stay all winter because they find our cold weather beaches and Oceanfront dining to their liking.

These late summer arrivals that turn more pale and gray as they lose their breeding plumage are so familiar to August and September beach goers that it's easy to forget they haven't been here all summer .

But they are nowhere to be seen earlier in the summer because they are on their Arctic breeding grounds. Sanderlings nest on the tundra, laying their eggs in little scrapes in the stony soil. Babies are ready to fly long distances in a little more than two weeks, so by the time they arrive here you can't tell parents from children. Some will even go on to fly as far south as South America for the winter.

Sanderlings often travel with other shorebirds, some bigger and some smaller. You may see them mixed in with longer-legged shorebirds, such as willets or dunlins, or the more colorful ruddy turnstones. Most of us tend to lump all these shorebirds into one category and call them "sandpipers."

Sanderlings follow the waves along the edge of the surf to dine on tiny crustaceans and worms brought to the surface by receding waves. They probe the sand with mouth slightly open and you can see the little trail of holes the birds make as they dash along the wet sand.

When a wave approaches, they race up the beach and always seem to manage to escape the incoming water. Usually, when there are just a couple of sanderlings together on the beach, one will lower its head, ruff out its feathers to look as formidable as possible and chase the other off.

In large groups, when the birds are disturbed, they are beautiful as they fly in unison just above the waves to land in another spot to feed. But disturbing them is not a good idea. These little birds have had a long migration and may be facing still more of a flight further south. They need to feed all the time to keep up their energy.

That's why it's best to keep dogs on leashes when they are on the beach this time of year. For the sanderlings, time spent flying from crazy dogs that are just having fun chasing them is time spent not eating. We need to be hospitable to our autumn visitors.

Milkweed source Norfolk reader Margaret Hamilton wrote to tell readers about Live Monarch, a foundation that supports the conservation of monarch butterflies especially by encouraging people to raise the monarch host plant, milkweed. For a suggested donation of $2, Live Monarch will mail you a pack of milkweed seeds.

"If people get the seeds and plant them now," Hamilton said, "they should survive the fairly mild winters here and come up next spring." Or you can plant them late next winter in seed cups and set them out in spring.

Visit . I noticed the Web site also sells milkweed plants and has lots of helpful advice.

Butterfly cage Juanita Schar in Southshore Estates reported that a collapsible mesh laundry basket was perfect for raising butterflies. She raised black swallowtail caterpillars in the basket and was "rewarded by the arrival of about 15 gorgeous black swallowtail butterflies." Schar sent photos of two butterflies after their release as they nectared on flowers in her garden.

Photo ops Jan Eaton, who lives in the Lake Smith area, sent a lovely photo of a pink and brown painted lady butterfly nectaring on a sedum bloom.

Renelle Maddrey snapped a handsome great egret standing by the lake in Kings Grant.

Check out Bob McCausland's photo, left, of a rabbit dining with squirrels in his yard in the Diamond Springs area.

Sand crab Amine Tayloe , who lives on the landside at the North End, was surprised to see a little sand crab eating birdseed under her feeder over the weekend.

Renelle Maddrey in Kings Grant wrote about the young green herons, not long out of their nest that were "successful in flying across the lake about the time that a hawk swooped in and tried to attack. Fortunately, the adult heron was able to distract the hawk and the babies found shelter under a bush!"

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