Excerpt: The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal by John Yow

With his distinctively witty, anecdotal, and disarming voice, John Yow journeys to the shore and shares his encounters with some of the most familiar and beloved coastal birds.  Out of his travels—from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, down the Atlantic coast, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico—come colorful accounts of twenty-eight species, from ubiquitous beach birds like sanderlings and laughing gulls to wonders of nature like roseate spoonbills and the American avocets.  Along the way, Yow delves deeply into the birds’ habits and behaviors, experiencing and relating the fascination that leads many an amateur naturalist to become the most unusual of species—a birder.

In the following excerpt from The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore Yow spies the White Ibis during breeding season on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. (pp. 18-19)

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White Ibis
Eudocimus albus

Coming over the causeway and into town, the first thing you see is a sign proclaiming Dauphin Island, Alabama, as “the nation’s birdiest coastal community.” I wouldn’t dispute the claim. The beach at the west end is covered up in shorebirds; along a quiet street in the narrow island’s interior is a stand of pine trees where a colony of great blue herons build their nests; and on the north side there’s a wooded “shell mound” park where flocks of spectacularly colorful songbirds (prothonotary warblers, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, orchard orioles, you name it) habitually pause during their northward migration.

I was the guest of John (“Sto”) Stowers and his wife, Jenny, to whom the word “gracious” doesn’t quite do justice. By pure coincidence, I had met Sto on a bird hike in the mountains of North Carolina a few months earlier, and before the day was done he had invited me to his springtime house party on Dauphin Island. I accepted.

An outstanding birder, Sto immediately set about showing off the island’s amazing avifauna. Among the firsts for me, as we followed the trails through the shell mounds, were an ovenbird and a Louisiana waterthrush. “You never know what you might see this time of year,” Sto said as we were leaving the park. “There was a bunch of us out here last spring when word got started going around that a Hudsonian godwit had been seen out by the airport. The way people went running for their cars, you’d’ve thought you were at a NASCAR event.”

Sto and Jenny’s house is on the north side of the island, sitting right on the channel that leads out into the Mississippi Sound, and when the chop finally settled on the afternoon of my second day there, we hopped in his little motor boat and headed north back toward the mainland. About twenty minutes later we quietly puttered up onto the point of Cat Island, a narrow strip of sand crowned by low-growing wax myrtle and saw grass. Seeing us coming, two hundred white pelicans had already removed themselves from the beach and resettled on the water a hundred yards out. As we picked our way carefully along the shoreline (“‘Bout time for the oyster catchers to start nesting,” Sto warned), the air was filled with the low murmur of birds yet unseen in the vegetation rising on our left side. Then, sudden as summer thunder, the white ibises[1] arose—who knows how many hundreds?—wheeling low overhead in a churning cloud of white and dropped back down out of view.

We walked toward the west end of the island and turned around to set up Sto’s scope with the sun at our backs, and from that vantage point we saw a rookery just seething with birds, not only the ibises but every heron and egret imaginable, including the elusive night herons. It was the start of nesting season, and the birds were uneasy at our intrusion. But every now and then, a long, plumed neck would stretch upward as if to check us out, and we would have a perfect look. The lores of the great egret were turning green; those of the snowy were turning red. But the ibises were not to be outdone: in their courtship transmogrification, their faces, bills, and legs all turn from dull pink to bright crimson.

The whole thing was pretty overwhelming—and not just for armchair birders. “I got a doctor friend up in Huntsville,” said Sto on our way back in. “He and his wife have gone all over the world on birding trips, professional guides and everything. I brought ‘em out here and they called it the most amazing place they had ever seen.”

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From The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore, by John Yow. Copyright © 2012 by John Yow.

John Yow is a freelance writer based in Acworth, Georgia, and former senior editor at Longstreet Press. He is author of The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds and The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore.

  1. [1] “Ibis” is the name given to this bird by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, had the body of a man and the head of an ibis, and the bird’s family name, Threskiornithidae, is Greek for “sacred bird.”

    As for the genus name Eudocimus, that comes from the nineteenth-century Munich ornithologist Johan Wagler and means simply “in good standing.” Choate tells us that Wagler “correctly removed these birds from the genus Scolopax” and put them into a new genus of his own creation. “It seems he could not resist naming the genus after his own accomplishment in placing the bird in a scientific classification ‘in good standing.’” Diana Wells soothes that sting. Wagler, she writes, “loved nomenclature and once described sorting bird names as a way of ‘passing the hours in the most pleasant manner imaginable.’”

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