Birding from Shore

We stopped several times on our recent morning drive along the Gulf of Mexico. The sunny but cool weather, which followed cloudy and cold weather, brought out a lot of birds but not much else. We saw groups of gulls crowded along a shore. Laughing gulls predominated, though one or two terns mixed in with the crowd.
At one stop I noticed some birds on rocks further out. The bills of the birds caught the sun, so I focused on them. I knew that they were either Royal terns or Caspian terns. I checked the guidebook, and based on the black head that extends all the way to the forehead, and the bill color, I identified them as Caspian terns. The bill color did throw me a bit. They sat facing the early morning sun, and the way that light can play with colors fooled me before.

I learned bird identification many years ago using THE field book of nearly everyone at the time, Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Birds. That guide, along with most of the others until recently, focuses on specific field marks such colors, markings, bill length and other similar features to identify the bird. Several years ago I became aware of the GISS method (General Impression of Size and Shape) which focuses on typical behavior, shape, and methods of movement. I had a shorebird guide that used it, so tried that method with shore birds and found it helpful. As most of my birding companions used Peterson’s and the field marks, I didn’t go much further. Karl has been using that method more lately and finding he likes it. Recently I found another book that uses it and decided to learn it more thoroughly to see if I could teach myself to notice these other characteristics first to help my identification.
I used that method when I saw some birds swimming further out, and by the overall shape including the bill and the way they swam I narrowed in on a merganser, and identified the Red-breasted merganser.

As I checked one more time before we left, I saw this fin in the distance. I know that one by heart, a dolphin. I watched for a few minutes, but it dove and didn’t resurface within my viewing range.

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