We met again at Sharkheads in Biloxi to begin the fifth leg of our hike across the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were joined by Sue, a friend of Gail’s, who is an expert biologist and an avid birdwatcher. Just our luck, because soon after we started to hike down the seawall, we came to the first of many Least Tern nesting sites. Sue had her binoculars out in a flash and gave us a crash course in the migratory and nesting patterns of the Least Tern.
It seems that this mostly white and grey bird, with a black cap and black wingtips, flies all the way across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America to mate and nest on the sandy beaches in Biloxi and Gulfport. The gull-like birds scrape out a shallow indentation in the bare sand where they lay 1-3 eggs and wait for the next 20 – 25 days for them to hatch. Both parents participate in protecting the nest, incubation, and feeding the hatchlings. In scorching weather, the adults will dip themselves in water then sprinkle the eggs to cool them off. The hatchlings will stay with their parents for the next 2-3 months. They all will fly south for the winter, some as far as Brazil.
Historically, the Least Terns nested on the barrier islands, but in 1936 they started using manmade dredge areas and construction sites along the mainland, and then the new artificial beaches beginning in 1952. Efforts to protect these populations of nesting birds have been very successful. The Least Tern nesting sites in Harrison County have been designated as a Globally Important Birding Area because of more Least Terns nest here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast than any other place in the world.
It was fascinating to walk down the seawall near the beach and watch these aerial acrobats spin and reel on invisible waves of air, courting and feeding, all to ensure another show will play for us next year.
Also along the beach among the Least Terns were the Black Skimmers, birds that the local family of the famous artist Walter Anderson calls Shearwaters. Black Skimmers, as their name would suggest, are mostly black with white underparts. They have a ridiculously large orange and black beak with, the bird equivalent of, a severe underbite. This elongated lower bill is used to “skim” the water’s surface and snap shut when a small fish is encountered. They are larger than the Least Tern and can be seen nesting in the same area.
Watching the birds was the highlight of our hike that day. Otherwise, it was a straight shot, nine-mile hike down to Jones Park in Gulfport. We left our new friend Sue at the end and decided to take the Beach Trolley bus back to Sharkheads. One dollar and fifty cents each, exact change, got us on the eastbound bus, but we found out that it was only going to take us as far as the Edgewater Mall, three-miles short of our destination. We would need another $1.50, exact change, to transfer. We live in a credit card world and could not come up with the cash. So, we did as pilgrims do, and strapped on our packs and walked the rest of the way back.
Total distance: 12 miles.