If you have young kids or grandkids, there is nothing more interesting, exciting and educational than wading out into the fresh sargassum washing in and scooping up a few clumps in a pool net, removing the clumps and showing eager eyes the critters left behind that hide within it for thousands of miles. It even beats TV.
Sargassum is a red algae that emanates in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It drifts westward and south ofFlorida before entering the Gulf of Mexico in spring. With it comes tens of millions of tiny animals, from Sargasso Fish to marine invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, crabs and shrimp - all the color of the sargassum. Locals call it “seaweed” but the birds call it a buffet. This stretch above was on Bolivar Beach and you can see gobs of Laughing Gulls working the shallows for lunch.
Let’s look at some other birds that enjoy sargassum piles.
This Forster’s Tern is bringing a Sargasso Fish to his sweetie in hopes she’ll accept his offer of love. Or lust. Note the orange legs and bill of the Forster’s as well as the long tail. Obviously this bird is in full breeding plumage, with the black cap. Do you know why this isn’t a Common Tern?
The far northern Glaucous Gull was sitting at the edge of the sargassum, probably not even knowing what it was. However, that didn’t keep him from robbing other smaller gulls of their catch. This bird is sun bleached but still lacks any dark pigment in the primaries – a sure sign it’s not a Herring
This Laughing Gull has a large Sargasso Fish and is deciding what to do with it. You can see the “weed” and its little round gas bladders that keep it afloat. This allows it to float and the algal mass to photosynthesize. Plants give off oxygen and that helps fill the bladders with the very gas animals need to breathe.
This Sandwich Tern has caught something from the sargassum that I can’t identify (and I taught marine biology!). It appears segmented – possibly a crustacean - but that’s all I know. You can see the shaggy crest of the tern and theiryellow bill tip. They often feed out deep with the Royals, so who knows what they are bringing in.
This smart Black-bellied Plover is snatching up small crustaceans from the fresh sargassum as his body putsthe finishing touches on his alternate (breeding) plumage. Soon he’ll be in the Arctic, sitting on eggs laid in the chilly tundra. Here the sun will warm his black belly and the eggs will be brought to life that much quicker.
This Marbled Godwit (left) and Western Willet (right) forage among the sargassum for tiny animals, almost a mirror image of each other. Western Willets migrate along the Gulf shore on their way westward and the bounty brought in by the sargassum gives them the nourishment they need. Note just how “godwit-like” the Western Willet is.
Hiding between the sea foam and sargassum is a changing plumaged Dunlin, another of the Far North nesters. Protein from this smorgasbord needs to get him to the extreme North and he would likely perish without it. Dunlins and Sanderlings actually breed further north than Alaska and are about the same size.
The Semipalmated Plover is our most common and widespread small plover, nesting well inside the Arctic Circle. They have darker backs than Piping or Snowy and lack the thick, black bill of the Wilson’s Plover. Like many of our birds, there is an Old World species that looks much like our species, and one day there needs to be a book on these birds.
Here is a fine female Wilson’s Plover foraging among the sargassum. Their pink legs and thick, black bill are distinctive and no small crab is safe around their beak. There are less than 7000 of these southern breeders and their habitat is being compromised more every day. They are the onlyplover (besides Killdeer) that breeds on the UpperTexas Coast.
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