The more human animals you see at the beach, the fewer wild animals you’re likely to see.
Unless some kid is feeding Cheetos to the gulls*. Nobody can resist Cheetos.
But, if you look closely, there are plenty of wild animal nature experiences to be had. These are my favorites from our last trip to Myrtle Beach.
The two dark blue spots in the middle distance are schools of fish. Or, perhaps, one school that’s been momentarily split in two. As I watched, the schools drifted north with the long-shore current.
As the ocean water deepens, its color changes – the greenish brown of the tumbling surf zone becomes turquoise over the outer sand bars, then teal, then, finally, navy. But, wait, what are those odd splotches of navy in the turquoise waters? They’re schools of fish!
The higher up you are, the easier the schools are to spot, which is an excellent excuse to spend a little quiet time staring out your hotel window. The schools can stretch the length of a football field or more, and if you look closely, you may see the sun flash silver off of the fish at the surface as they jockey for position.
From beach level, you can be fairly sure of a large school nearby if you see a number of pelicans diving to catch fish in the same area. Important to note here that fish schools are preyed on from above by pelicans (and other birds, such as terns) and from below by larger fish and sharks. No matter how tempted you are to try to swim out to the school to see the amazing synchronization of thousands of fish, don’t. 1) It’s farther than you think, and 2) you don’t want to confuse the sharks, who might accidentally think you’re included in the buffet.
Though these brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) are flying in a V formation, flocks are more often seen flying in long, undulating lines. The largest such line I’ve ever seen comprised 18 individual birds.
Brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) are incredible to watch as they dive into the ocean to snatch up a snack (and up to 17 gallons of water around said snack) in their roomy throat pouches. They may catch many small fish (such as anchovies or menhaden) or a singular, large fish (up to 12 inches long). They then squeeze the excess seawater out of the pouch as they sit on top of the water while keeping their beak closed to trap the fish. Large fish must then be thrown up in the air and re-caught, head first, so that they can be swallowed. You can see this dramatic throw even from shore, as the pelican jerks its entire neck and head to toss the fish.
As if this weren’t enough, pelicans tend to flock as they ride the onshore breeze (sea breeze) down the coast over the beach. Why? They, like geese that migrate in large V-shaped flocks in the fall and spring, are drafting: all of those following the leader have to expend less energy because the leader diffuses the headwind. The birds take turns being the leader so that everyone can conserve energy.
Most often, these flocks fly in undulating lines, which I have always thought of as the Pelican Parade. Years ago, when I lived in Florida near the Gulf Coast and was studying to become a National Wildlife Federation Habitat Steward, they assigned us acrostic poems to help cement our memories for identification. Inspired by the birds at hand, I wrote this about the brown pelican**:
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Breeding commonly on our coasts, though
Rarely found on freshwater, preferring the salty shore, we find them
Often begging for food on piers, trained by soft-hearted humans or
With friends, flying in long straight lines, low over the water and
Near the waves, looking for small fish to eat.
Plunging into the sea, they snap up their prey with an elegant,
Elongated beak, outdistanced only by its own
Long wings, broader than a basketball player is tall.
Immature is uniformly dull brown above, lighter below, but
Chocolate brown on the back of the neck highlights the breeding male.
An excellent flier, powerfully stroking, then gliding, looking out with its
Neck drawn back.
Coquina clams (Donax variabilis) come in a variety of beautiful shades, from white to orange and blue to purple. Shell color, however, seems to have no correlation to speed in racing. Never judge a clam by its cover.
My daughter and mother-in-law invented a great shore game on a trip to the beach when Abbey was four: fizzle. They would sit, legs extended, at the edge of the surf zone, in no more than an inch or two of water and let the waves wash over them. Most of the waves would just “fizzle out”, but quite a few knocked them clear over. This inspired fits of giggling in both girls, and they’d sit and “play” for an hour. (Anyone who’s had a four year old knows that a whole hour of playing at one activity is a miracle. Way to go, Grandma!)
In between waves or just a few feet up the beach on the wet sand, Abbey would dig down three to six inches to find dozens of coquina clams (Donax variabilis). Each clam is only about an inch long and most are brightly colored – magenta streaked with butter yellow, sunset orange streaked with ivory, and all shades of purple and blue, too. But their colors aren’t what make them awesome – their speed is.
When these clams are dug up and exposed to surface sunlight and temperatures, their first order of business is to hold still to avoid the prying eyes (and beaks) of their shore bird predators. Their second order of business is to dig back down into the sand (fat end up) and resume their filter feeding in dark protection.
Noting this movement and, feeling that competition is at the heart of everything American, we, of course, raced them to see which coquina could re-bury itself first. If you’d like to try racing coquina at the beach, let me give you the following advice:
- Children pick the winners and, therefore, win most of the time. I can only surmise that this is because Mother Nature just likes kids better than grown ups.
- The color of the shell and size of the clam have nothing to do with speed. At least, not that I’ve observed in my highly scientific studies. (All scientists conduct serious studies in their bathing suits, right?)
- Clams out of water do seem to move faster than clams in water. I haven’t repeated the study enough to get statistically valid results, but we’re heading to the beach again next week, so make sure to read upcoming science and biology journals for my next paper.
I envy committed “shellers” – those folks who collect shells so avidly that they comb the beaches at dawn and after storms, and know all of the best beaches where they’re likely to find the rarest, most beautiful shells.
Sadly, I have neither the travel allowance nor the ability to rise early to become a serious shell collector. Instead, I choose to delight in the beautiful pieces of shell that are plentiful at the tideline. Grabbing a handful of these is like holding the whole rainbow of color and texture. From each handful, too, I can extract several of the larger pieces to take back to my chair under the beach umbrella, break out my shore guides and identification books, and try to solve the mystery of the shells’ true identities. Here are a few of my best mysteries from this last trip:
Clockwise: Upper left – an unknown, possibly clam, shell. But look at all of the cool mother of pearl on it – other shelled creatures were beginning to grow on it! Upper right – part of a whelk shell. Lower right – my best guess is a part of a blue mussel shell (it wasn’t white inside, which would indicate oyster). Lower left – based on size and vertical ridges, I think it’s a cockle shell. Note: I photographed all of these shells against the white background of my 9×6 inch travel journal. The color of the page looks a bit pink because my chair sat beneath the fuchsia section of our rainbow beach umbrella.
Clockwise: Upper left – I think we have another cockle shell Upper middle – an ark shell Upper right – a piece of a northern moon shell Lower right-I’m going to go with clam of unknown type for now, I’ve got more research to do Lower middle – a giant bittersweet clam Lower left, a shell that looks like a cross between a cockle and an ark – a “carkle” perhaps?
Clockwise: Upper left – a piece of quahog clam shell that was turned into swiss cheese by something – the overly acidic ocean? Another animal? Another mystery to solve. Upper middle – worm tubes – creepy in a good way Upper right – a thick piece of quahog shell; I wish I could have tilted it more for better perspective – it was at least 1/2 inch thick! Lower right – a piece of granite! Not a natural item for a sandy east coast beach. Perhaps it is the remnants of a granite counter top reclaimed by the sea in a hurricaine. Lower middle – no idea what this shell was, but check out the remnants of the cool shelled animals that were starting to grow on its lower right corner! Lower left: a cockle whose color and pattern have been lost to waves and time?
A fabulous handful. All spread out, I see a coquina still joined in the center (folks sometimes call these angel wings), a partial quahog and a hunk of a much larger quahog, pieces of mussel shells, a piece of giant heart cockle, and maybe a piece of scallop. Any true shellers out there? Help me out!
Other cool beach finds:
Whelks are a kind of sea snail (cousins to the conch found in warmer waters) that can grow as large as 16 inches. Based on the points that circle the crown (on the left side), I think this was a knobbed whelk or lightning whelk.
Look at that beautiful, delicate peach on the inside of the whelk shell!
In looking through my identification guides, the only name I found for this is “Deadman’s Fingers”, a type of sea sponge.
Hey beach folk out there – help a mountain girl out and tell me more?
A hunk of sargassum seaweed is a whole mini cosmos to explore. If something brushes against you in the water and it feels leafy, try to snatch it up! Sargassum is a nursery for myraid sea creatures – you’ll find it covered with bunches tiny shelled creatures and even hosting tiny fish!
Obviously, I still have research to do. It’s hard to buckle down with your feet buried in the sand. But I’ll try. (Heavy sigh.) Next up: the Outer Banks!
*Buzz kill: The reason I write “gulls” here instead of “seagulls” is that there is no such thing as a “seagull”. They all live on or near the sea or ocean, so that word is redundant and vague. The gulls most likely to be seen on mid-atlantic and southeastern beaches are laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), herring gulls (Larus argentatus), and great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus).
** Previously published in a National Wildlife Federation newsletter.