Shorebird Nesting Has Begun

After weeks of nest searching with little luck, the birds have finally decided that it’s warm enough and they are ready to start laying eggs. In previous years, we documented a record-breaking early nesting attempt by an American oystercatcher pair on March 10, but nesting typically start around mid to late March.   So, needless to say, as March ended and April began, with no discovered Wilson’s plover or American oystercatcher nests, we were ready.

Freshly laid Wilson's plover nest

Freshly laid Wilson’s plover nest

This will be the last of three field seasons for an ongoing research project with the objective of determining how habitat variables can be used to predict nesting location and nest success for American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers.  We are also investigating how different nest predators (avian, raccoon, coyote) might influence nest location and nest success, and will incorporate effects of sea level rise, and geological processes, such as inlet dynamics and shoreline change, as well.

During the first week of April, we’d found only one Wilson’s plover nest and several Killdeer nests.  But, as temperatures have risen and spring has finally settled in, nesting has started with vigor!  In the past two weeks, we’ve found 38 Wilson’s plover nest and 7 American oystercatcher nests!  Birds have set up territories and within those territories created scrapes- shallow depressions made by smoothing and kicking out the sand.  They can make several scrapes in a territory, and then the female chooses one and lays her eggs.  The eggs blend in so well with the surrounding beach that they are very difficult for predators (and researchers) to find.

American oystercatcher nest

American oystercatcher nest

Last week, we found one of the coolest nests I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been out on the beaches. This Wilson’s plover pair nested right inside an old horseshoe crab shell!  They will likely lay one more egg and then in about 25 days, hopefully the nest will hatch.

The best nest: A Wilson’s plover nest inside a horseshoe crab shell!

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Norm’s Pond Rookery Update

Nesting great egrets at Norm's Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Nesting great egrets at Norm’s Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Spring has arrived on Little St. Simons Island, and with the warmer weather comes wading bird activity at Norm’s Pond. Great egrets, snowy egrets, and anhingas are strutting their breeding plumage, building nests, and laying eggs on islands in the pond. Nests will begin to hatch in the next couple of weeks.

Norm’s Pond is an active sediment borrow pit, with the sand collected from the area used for island road construction and maintenance. The pit was connected to a nearby artesian well and flooded. An upland peninsula that stretched into the center of the pond was ditched and made into an island to create rookery nesting habitat. Predators, like raccoons, are unwilling to jump or swim to the island to eat eggs and chicks due to alligators that patrol the pond. As a result, the birds that nest on the island have a much higher success rate than those that nest on the edge of the pond.

Recently, we created a new island at Norm’s Pond. Another peninsula, that usually had high predation rates, was trenched and cut off from the mainland. Great egrets and anhingas are currently nesting on the new island. Ecological staff conducts weekly rookery surveys to monitor nests and chicks. From these surveys, we have documented more fledged chicks (chicks that can fly) on the islands than the pond edge. We predict that trend will continue for the new island as well.

Guests have an excellent opportunity to experience the rookery from the Norm’s Pond tower. The tower provides close views of courtship, nest building, and chick rearing without causing stress to the birds. Many guests have also observed the large alligator, famously known as “Norm”, sunbathing along the pond’s edge. Several other bird species roost, or rest, at Norm’s Pond including tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, cattle egret, white ibis, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills.

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Management Technician

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Naturalist Fact: Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird or bee based on the moth’s appearance and behavior. Adult coloration is variable, but a “furry” olive green and burgundy back is common. Its underside is light yellow or white on the thorax, and burgundy on abdomen. The wingspan is 1.6 to 2.2 inches, and the wings always have a dark reddish border with a transparent center. These moths have fast wingbeats, and hovers while collecting nectar with a long feeding tube from flowers.

During its four weeks as a caterpillar, it feeds mostly on honeysuckle, cherry trees, and hawthorns. As a moth, it feeds on a variety of flowers. These moths feed during the day, which is another factor to their mistaken identity. In the southeast, there are two broods with most activity during the summer months.  The largest population of Hummingbird Clearwing Moths is along the east coast ranging from Florida to Maine. A west coast population ranges from Alaska to Oregon.

 

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Naturalist Fact: Northern Gannet

Naturalist Fact

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

northern gannet

The Northern Gannet is a large seabird, and the largest member of the gannet family.  These birds have long, slender, black-tipped wings with wingspans reaching about 70 inches from tip to tip.  Adult birds have yellowish heads and all white bodies (pictured above) while immature gannets are very dark with white spots.  It can take three or more years to attain full adult plumage.

Gannets are well known for their spectacular feeding behavior, which includes aerial plunges from heights up to 130 feet above the water.  Just before entering the water, the wings are pulled behind the back to help to bird penetrate deeper into the water. Once underwater, the gannets will then use their feet and wings to propel themselves further in pursuit of prey.   Most dives are relatively shallow but dives to depths of 72 feet have been observed.  Small, schooling fishes are the most common prey, but gannets will also opportunistically take squid as well.

These impressive predators are colonial breeders, nesting only on the rocky cliffs of offshore islands during the summer.  There are just six colonies of breeding gannets in North America; three colonies exist in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Quebec), and three off the coast of Newfoundland.  Large nests are constructed of compacted mud, seaweed, grass, and feathers, with excrement being used as cement.  One pale bluish-green egg is laid each nesting season, and chicks are nearly bare when newly hatched.

Winters are spent entirely at sea, and these birds can be seen diving off the beach at Little St. Simons Island in search of prey.  A spotting scope or binoculars may be necessary to observe them as they typically stay far offshore, but on occasion they can be seen within 100 yards of the beach.

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Naturalist Fact: Wood Stork

wood stork 1

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Wood Stork is a large, white wading bird with black flight feathers. This bird has a long, decurved bill on its bald head. Its wingspan averages 5.5 feet, making it unmistakable in flight.

Wood Storks are the only species of stork breeding in North America. In the United States, they breed from Florida to southern North Carolina. Other breeding sites are in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are social animals, so they nest in colonies and can have up to 25 nests in one tree. Cypress and mangrove are their preferred nesting trees. On average, a pair of nesting Wood Storks and their young consumes 443 pounds of fish during the breeding season.

Due to a decline in population, Wood Storks have been on the Endangered Species List since 1984. The loss of wetland habitat by development, agricultural practices, and water management practices are reasons for their endangerment. Wood Storks are an indicator species for a healthy, wetland ecosystem.

Wood Storks feed mainly on freshwater fish, and use tactilocation to obtain their meals. Tactilocation is feeding by groping with a bill, and not using eyesight. Wood Storks submerge their bill under water, walk slowly, and sweep their bill side to side. When their bill snaps shut on a fish, their 25-millisecond reflex action is the fastest among vertebrates.

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Rare bird: Snow Bunting

It’s no secret that Little St. Simons Island is a birder’s paradise. We are graced with beautiful birds year-round, everything from magnificent shorebirds to tiny warblers.

With a group of birders intent on setting eyes (and scopes) on some rare birds a couple of weeks ago, the island’s magic happily obliged. On November 9, we were making our way around the island to many of the great birding spots. After hitting Main Beach, the marshes off Beach Road and Marsh Road, and Myrtle Pond, we had paused at Sancho Panza Beach on the northern tip of the island to refuel.

As folks were digging into their lunches, one of the guests came running and shouting back down the beach path, “Snow Bunting! There’s a SNOW BUNTING!”

Snow Bunting at Sancho Panza. Photo: Herb Fechter.

Snow Bunting at Sancho Panza. Photo: Herb Fechter.

Everyone in the group got great looks at the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) who was feeding along the wrack line and taking cover in the dune vegetation at Sancho Panza Beach. In its winter plumage, this relative of the sparrows is mostly white on its underside and cinnamon on its head and back with distinct white patches on its wings. Its small yellow bill is used for picking up seeds and small invertebrates.

As you can imagine, with a name like “Snow Bunting,” this bird is not a frequent visitor of the Georgia coast. Snow Buntings are the first to arrive at their breeding grounds in the high Arctic tundra in the spring, and in the winter they are seen foraging in the fields of the northern plains and the Midwest as well as on beaches in the northeast US. The last time a Snow Bunting was spotted on Little St. Simons Island was in November 2006 when Wendy Paulson spotted one on Main Beach. There are only three other instances of a Snow Bunting in coastal Georgia listed in eBird: Cumberland Island in 1986; Fort Pulaski in 1996; and Tybee Island in 2012.

Breeding and wintering ranges of the Snow Bunting. Image: Birds of North America Online.

Breeding and wintering ranges of the Snow Bunting. Image: Birds of North America Online.

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Naturalist Fact: Long-billed Curlew

Michael Libbe, www.allaboutbirds.org

Michael Libbe, www.allaboutbirds.org

The Long-billed Curlew is North America’s largest shorebird, and is easily identifiable by its extremely long, down-curved bill. This sandpiper is buffy brown with a cinnamon color under the wings, and has a wingspan of 24-35 inches. Females have a longer bill than males that is flatter on top, with a more noticeable curve at the tip. Their long bill allows them to forage deep into the ground for earthworms in grassland habitats, and shrimp and crabs on mudflats and beaches. These birds are known to peck at the ground surface as well for grasshoppers, beetles, and spiders.

Pesticide spraying may harm birds by reducing grasshopper populations. Also, habitat loss is a continuing threat due to development and effects of climate change. California wetlands have declined by 90%, and are an essential wintering ground for Long-billed Curlews.

Long-billed Curlews spend summers breeding in the Great Plains and Great Basin on grasslands and agricultural fields. Nests are a shallow depression in the ground that can be lined with grass, pebbles, twigs, and bark. Clutch size is four eggs, and their incubation period is 27-31 days. Young are born precocial, and are able to walk and leave the nest 5 hours after hatching. Chicks are able to fly after 45 days.

During the non-breeding season, Long-billed Curlews migrate to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and interior Mexico. In Georgia, they can be found wintering on barrier islands, including Little St. Simons Island. Sandy beaches and tidal mudflats with very little human disturbance are the best locations for spotting these sandpipers.

Luke Seitz, www.allaboutbirds.org

Luke Seitz, www.allaboutbirds.org

 

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Norm’s Pond Rookery

For years, a variety of wading birds have gathered at Norm’s Pond to nest. Wading birds typically look for islands surrounded by freshwater wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are home to American alligators, who act as the birds’ best defense against mammalian predators, such as raccoons.  According to Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Non-game program, there are 10 other nesting colonies, or rookeries, like this one on the coast. All of these colonies are monitored by GADNR at least twice a season by fly-overs and some are monitored additionally on the ground.

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm's Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Our wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond is winding down, but not for lack of activity earlier in the season. This year we saw activity begin at the end of February. Tim Keyes noted that the mild winter resulted in earlier wading bird nesting along the coast. Breeding season also varies between species and this is to ensure less competition in the highly desirable nesting locations.

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Little St. Simons Island’s rookery at Norm’s Pond provided perfect nesting habitat for 7 species of wading birds. The first of the wading birds to arrive were the great egrets, shortly followed by snowy egrets, tricolored herons, anhinga’s, cattle egrets, white ibis, and black-crowned night herons. Nest building, courtship, and copulation were observed as the birds brought sticks to the islands and danced with their partners to show off their brilliant breeding plumage.

The new two-story observation tower provides a spectacular view of the nests on one of the two islands at Norm’s Pond and along the perimeter of the pond. It also allows us to more accurately monitor the nests. We have been following the nests since the end of February and have found that as predicted, the nests on the islands fared better than the nests on the edge of the pond. This provides a perfect example to the important role that American alligators play as a keystone species, here on the coast. Without the American alligators to patrol the waters at the rookery, raccoons and other predators would be more likely to take advantage of the buffet of bird eggs.

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

The middle of the nesting season is the busiest time at the rookery. In May we had over 80 nests that could be observed from the viewing tower! We knew of additional nests on the far side of the pond and deep in the vegetation on the islands that could not be easily seen from the tower. Woodstorks and a couple of roseate spoonbills in breeding plumage visited the rookery but did not nest here.  There was also a yellow-crowned night heron fledgling seen recently which was an exciting find – this was the first sign that yellow-crowned night herons’ had nested at the site.

Four anhinga pairs were nesting earlier in the season and two of those nests each fledged (produced chicks that can fly) three chicks. Twenty nests are currently active at the rookery and are all most likely re-nests from pairs that were unsuccessful during their previous nesting attempts. We expect nesting at Norm’s Pond to be done by the end of September. Overall, the rookery has been successful this year and we are fortunate to be able to have such up-close and personal viewing opportunities during such an important part of the wading birds’ life cycle.

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Naturalist Fact: Reddish Egret

Photo from Animalspot.net.

Photo from Animalspot.net.


©William Newton

©William Newton


Reddish egrets are large wading birds that can be found on Little St. Simons beaches during the Summer. When identifying a reddish egret, make sure to account for the two different color morphs: one has a slate blue-ish gray body with a rufous ruff around the neck and head, while the other is pure white. Both are pictured above, and you might notice that in both cases, the bill turns from pink to black—a characteristic that sets them apart from other white herons. To that end, here’s a fun fact: all egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets. The word “egret” refers only to the white herons; it’s derived from the French word “aigrette”, which translates to “silver heron” and “brush”, in reference to their beautiful wispy breeding plumes. Those same lovely feathers were prized for women’s hats at the turn of the 20th Century, leading to their extirpation from the United States. Luckily, with the enactment of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reddish egrets received Federal protection. Today, their numbers are increasing, yet they still haven’t fully recovered; this time, habitat loss is to blame. As coastal specialists, reddish egrets need protected lands such as Little St. Simons.

To find a reddish egret on Little St. Simons, check Sancho Panza during the early morning and late evening hours. If you do spot a reddish egret, be sure to stop and watch! Reddish egrets are extremely active hunters, and their unique style sets them apart from their heron cousins. When in pursuit of a fish, reddish egrets will flap their wings to reduce glare on the water and give chase, rendering what looks exactly like a “dance”!

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Naturalist Fact: Red-winged Blackbird

The red and yellow epaulets on the male Red-winged Blackbird give it its name. Photo: Laura Erickson, allaboutbirds.org

The red and yellow epaulets on the male Red-winged Blackbird give it its name. Photo: Laura Erickson, allaboutbirds.org

Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are one of the most abundant native birds in North America and can be found in most parts of the continent. In the winter, these birds feed in open areas on seeds and insects and roost in flocks with thousands of other blackbirds, grackles, and starlings. In the summer, they prefer to nest amongst the vegetation in marshes, wetlands, and sometimes drier fields.

Red-winged Blackbirds nest throughout Georgia, but it is a sure sign of spring when the brightly-colored males start to show up on Little St. Simons to set up their breeding territories. The males arrive first, staking out their territory and guarding it fiercely. It is estimated the male spends at least 25% of the day defending his territory from other males and nest predators.

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle, allaboutbirds.org

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle, allaboutbirds.org

Several females will nest within a single male’s territory. This is called a polygynous mating system. Each female will construct her own nest out of grasses and reeds, weaving it into the stalks of standing grass near the water’s edge. In Georgia, Red-winged Blackbirds attempt two broods each year, the first in early May and the second near the beginning of July. Once hatched, the young take 11-14 days to fledge, during which time both the male and female help in feeding the hungry chicks.

Both male and female Red-winged Blackbirds are a sure sight as you kayak through the marshes around Little St. Simons in the summer months. They can also be spotted at our birdfeeders and any open habitat around the island.

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