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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Tybee Island

I'm not sure what it is exactly - maybe it's the sound of waves crashing, the rush of wind and salt air, or the magic of standing in a liminal space - but something about being at the beach can instantly quiet my mind and make me forget about all of the usual nonsense knocking around in my brain. It's such a lovely thing to feel the vastness of the landscape around you starting to take over. It's like losing yourself in the best possible way.

Visiting the beach during the off season, when it was chilly outside and less crowded than usual, made our sunrise walks on Tybee Island feel even more calming and peaceful.

Tybee Island Lighthouse at dawn

During our trip to Savannah, we didn't stay on Tybee but visited its North Beach to watch two sunrises. It was lovely to see what is typically a very crowded vacation destination virtually deserted (except for the shorebirds, who are fine by me, of course).

When I'm not chasing birds, I like to watch for details and little things, so I loved looking at all the shells strewn along the beach. We had soft pinkish light for both sunrises, which complemented the shells beautifully.

While we were looking for shells, we spotted something I never expected to see: a sand dollar. Before this trip, the only kind of sand dollar I knew was bleached white and dried for decorative purposes. Having only seen them in that context, I had assumed they were essentially sea shells. But sand dollars are actual living organisms, similar to sea stars and sea urchins.

Living sand dollars look quite different from the dried white skeletons most people are familiar with. They are a reddish purple color and covered with small spines and hairs (cilia). If you ever happen to find a sand dollar at the beach and want to know whether it's alive or not, you can look for movement in the cilia. But if a sand dollar is out on the sand, chances are that it's already dead, because they can only survive for a very short time out of water.

It was also news to me that sand dollars are called "sea biscuits." Who knew?!

I thoroughly enjoyed the birding at Tybee. It's hard to pick favorites, but the little sanderlings running around everywhere were pretty darn cute. I love the markings on their feathers and the way they zip around on their tiny little legs.


Laughing gull, first winter

As someone who doesn't get to the beach often, I have a hard time figuring out what kind of gull I'm looking at. There are seemingly endless variations! A lot of this is due to changes that come with age. In many cases a young bird can have completely different markings from an adult.

In general, the more brown and speckly-looking a gull is, the more likely it is to be a young bird. Adult gulls tend to be shades of white, black, and gray. But since several types of gull follow this pattern, it can still be tough to tell exactly what you're looking at. Often, details like the color of the legs and bill or markings around the eyes, wings, and tail can help narrow things down.

Laughing gull, second winter

Gulls aren't the only birds that change their appearance as they mature. The immature piping plover below will gain a black neckband when it reaches breeding age, as well as a more pronounced hint of yellow where its bill meets its face. I felt very fortunate to see a piping plover, not just because they are such sweet-looking little birds, but also because they are a threatened species.

Immature/nonbreeding piping plover

I absolutely loved watching the royal terns at Tybee, and we were lucky to see a large flock of them. The shaggy tuft of feathers on the back of their heads is so endearing...almost clownish.

Royal tern, nonbreeding adult

The terns we saw were all immature/nonbreeding birds, and we noticed that some of them would follow other birds around and then crouch and squawk insistently in their faces. This is a begging posture that young birds use to ask for food. It didn't seem to be working for any of them though!

Black skimmers are one of the more distinctive-looking birds on southern beaches. From a distance they look almost eyeless because of the dark coloring on their heads. And of course, their bills are unusual too - but their shape makes a lot more sense if you've ever seen a skimmer feeding in flight. Pretty amazing!

Black skimmer

Skimmers flying together

We also saw lots of brown pelicans. I've said it before, but I'm not the kind of birder who scoffs at common birds or thinks they are inherently less interesting than rare ones. Pelicans may be a dime a dozen at any beach, but I am happy as can be anytime I see one. I mean, just look at them! And if you need any further convincing of why pelicans are fascinating, give this fabulous podcast a listen.

While I am praising common shorebirds, I should include the willet too. As you might guess from their appearance, willets are in the sandpiper family. They use their long, slender bills to pluck tiny crabs, mollusks, and aquatic insects out of the sand.


Willet feeding

I love watching willets feed. The way they use their bills reminds me of watching someone who is a skilled user of chopsticks. The movements are swift, seemingly effortless, and beautiful.

One final Tybee highlight: watching pods of dolphins swimming and jumping near the shore. I tried my darnedest to capture a dolphin breaching, but I ended up with a lot of near misses and shots of random-looking splashes once the dolphin had disappeared below the surface. Apparently I have quite a bit of work to do on my action-capture skills!


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