Spring Birding Week 2013

We just completed an incredible week of birding here on Little St. Simons Island! Our Spring birding week took place April 25th -May 5th, during which time we were graced with some exciting visitors.


Red Knots feeding on Main Beach.

As Spring migration is coming into full swing, new birds have been arriving each day. Some, like the Red Knot, are in the midst of a 9,000+ mile trip North, stocking up on food to fuel the rest of their journey. We also witnessed an incredible “food event” as horseshoe crabs lined the beach in mass, laying their eggs in the soft sand and creating a buffet for hungry shorebirds.  Others, like the colorful Painted Bunting, have traveled to the area to breed before they return to  the Caribbean.


Painted Bunting near the bird feeder outside of Cedar House.

Of course, with the birds came the birders! We were delighted to have renowned birders and naturalists here to lend their expert eyes and ears as we explored the island. This Spring we had Dr. Ray Chandler, ornithology professor at Georgia Southern University. John and Cathy Sill, who have authored and illustrated a series of books together, also spent time with us. Malcolm Hodges with The Nature Conservancy wrapped up the week sharing his love for birds and his unique interest in lichens. After the sun went down, they shared even more knowledge through presentations on topics ranging from how to migrate to how to draw birds to how to be an ecologist.


John Sill offered a field sketching workshop one evening after dinner which offered a whole new perspective to birdwatching.


If you missed out this Spring, don’t despair! We have Fall Birding coming up September 25th – October 3rd, 2013. Look forward to spending time with Jim and Georgann Schmalz and John and Cathy Sill.

To see a complete list of the species we spotted over the week, check out our list below. We tallied up 95 species. SpringBirding20130001 SpringBirding2013(Click on the list to enlarge it for easier viewing.)

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Horseshoe crab and shorebird bonanza!

2013-04-29 horeshoe

Horseshoe crabs gather in large groups at nesting beaches in the days surrounding full and new moons.

Having inhabited the oceans for over 350 million years, horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are a glimpse into prehistory. We spot them most often as dead carcasses or molts along the shoreline. However, right now we are seeing hundreds of live, healthy, active crabs at the waterline.

Birders at Sancho Panza marvel at the horseshoe crab "arribada."

Birders at Sancho Panza marvel at the horseshoe crab “arribada.”

Horseshoe crabs spend most of the year in deeper waters, but in the late Spring they begin to move inshore to mate in large aggregations. Hundreds are gathering at Sancho Panza Beach here on Little St. Simons Island. Mating activity peaks around the full moon and new moon cycles, and with the full moon last week, we found big groups of males fighting for the chance to fertilize some eggs, and several indentations in the soft, wet sand where undoubtedly nests had been left behind.

A female will push several clumps of eggs down into the sand with specially adapted appendages. Each clump can contain two to four thousand eggs, and over the course of her spawning season, a female will deposit around 90,000 miniature eggs! Of those 90,000 eggs, only about 10 are expected to mature into adult horseshoe crabs.

If you are familiar with our island, you know that Sancho Panza is an excellent shorebirding spot, and right now we are in the peak of Spring migration. It is quite the spectacle to see a variety of shorebirds eating to their little hearts’ content at the buffet of horseshoe crab eggs! In fact, horseshoe crabs are instrumental in the journeys of at least 20 species of migratory shorebirds along the Eastern Seaboard.

Ruddy Turnstone feeding at a horseshoe crab nest. (Photo: Pete Oxford)

Ruddy Turnstone feeding at a horseshoe crab nest. (Photo: Pete Oxford)

Sanderling feeding on horseshoe crab eggs. (Photo: Pete Oxford)

Sanderling feeding on horseshoe crab eggs. (Photo: Pete Oxford)

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Nesting season begins!


Wilson’s Plovers utilize our undeveloped beaches for nesting in the spring and summer months.

Nesting season is beginning to gain momentum, and so far we are have two Wilson’s Plovers nests and two Oystercatcher nests for this season here.

Former naturalist, Abby Sterling is starting the second field season of her two year Master’s project which involves monitoring nesting Wilson’s Plovers and American Oystercatchers here on Little St. Simons Island. She is also monitoring field sites on Little Cumberland and the north end of Cumberland Island. Abby’s project looks at nesting and fledging success as well as a variety of nest site characteristics to try to determine if different habitat features can be used to predict nest success and areas of high productivity.

Last year on Little St. Simons, we found 97 Wilson’s Plover nests, and had a little more than a quarter of them hatch.  Of the 25 nests that hatched, there were a total 55 chicks, all of which were banded.  The leading known causes of nest failure were washover from tides, avian predation, and raccoon predation. We had 17 American Oystercatcher nests, four of them hatched and we had seven chicks survive to fledging! The leading known causes of failure were washover from tides and raccoon predation. On Cumberland Island, on just the northern-most two miles of beach, there were 89 Wilson’s Plover nests and five oystercatcher nests found. The plover nest success rate was 5.6 % and none of the oystercatcher nests hatched. The leading causes of known failure on Cumberland were tidal overwash and coyote predation. On Little Cumberland we found 27 nests, had seven nests hatch and banded 17 chicks. There was only one Oystercatcher nest found, which washed over and failed.

WIPL nest

This Wilson’s Plover nest from last year was nestled safely amongst some beach vegetation.

We found nests quite far back on the beach in some cases, well behind the primary dunes. Other nests were located in the wrack line, which reiterates the importance of beachcombers staying below the wrack line on the wet sand during nesting season. Plovers nested out in the open sand, in wrack and in many cases, tucked into the vegetation. The data hasn’t been analyzed yet, but it will be really interesting to see if there are any relationships between these observations and nesting productivity.

This year Abby’s technician on Little Cumberland, Nathan Cross, found the first Wilson’s Plover nest on the tip of Cumberland on March 23.  It has already been lost, but he has since found a second nest that remains active and we found our first one here on April 1st.

Both the Oystercatchers and the plovers are showing signs of nesting. Since the middle of March they’ve been paired up and defending territories, but over the past several days we’ve been seeing many more scrapes created by both species. We do have pairs of Wilson’s Plovers quite vocal at all three beach access points (Mosquito Creek, Main Beach gazebo and Sancho Panza), and so its best to stay on the paths and below the wrack line when on the beach. Beach Pond is also an active area with several plover pairs and an Oystercatcher pair.


This pair of American Oystercatchers has a nest scrape near Beach Pond, and we are expecting to see eggs very soon!


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Naturalist Fact: Piping Plover

Piping plover “shuffling”. Photo by Britt.

Piping plovers are small, sand-colored shorebirds that inhabit Little St. Simons Island during the colder months. With their bright orange legs, black bow tie, and clear whistle “Pee-plo” call, they can be distinguished from other shorebirds. Piping plovers can best be found foraging along the incoming tide line; their tendency to run for short distances and then suddenly stop helps to set them apart. Be sure to watch for the piping plover “shuffle”! It’s a dance of sorts that serves to disturb their prey items. (This behavior is pictured above.)

Since piping plovers nest down on the sand, they are especially susceptible to predation. To avoid this, they have adapted excellent camouflage. However, their sand-colored eggs are very difficult to see, so unsuspecting beachcombers often step on them. The destruction of their shoreline habitat has also taken a toll, ultimately leading to their Endangered Species status.

So what can you do to help? It’s very easy! When visiting our beach, make sure to walk in the wet sand on the beach and avoid the dunes where the birds roost. With increasing awareness comes increasing hope for our tiny neighbors!

Fun Fact: For being only 18 cm long, piping plovers make a pretty impressive migration:

4,000 miles in one year!

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Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier (also called the Marsh Hawk) is seen throughout the winter months on Little St. Simons Island. The only harrier found in North America, it spends its summers as far north as Canada, and returns to the southern US in the winter.

With a wingspan of 3.5 feet, the Northern Harrier is a long-winged and long-tailed hawk. They can be spotted flying low over the marshes searching for

prey such as small mammals, birds, lizards, or snakes. It’s thought that they use their sense of hearing just as much as sight in hunting.

The Northern Harrier can be picked out by its distinctive flight pattern. Its wings are usually held in a V-shape as it dips and dives just above the tops of the grass in open areas. While the Northern Harrier varies in coloration between juveniles, adult females, and adult males, it always has a characteristic white patch just above its tail.

This species is not on the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species List, but has been on the National Audubon Society’s early-warning Blue List of declining species since 1972.

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Musical mysteries on LSSI

As a naturalist, I often get the question of whether I get bored giving the same tours over and over. The answer is definitely no! Little St. Simons Island is a very dynamic system–changing with the seasons, movement of wildlife, tidal events, etc. I am always picking up on something new!

Norm's Pond. Photo: Britt Brown

At the end of this summer, we discovered a mysterious sound coming from Norm’s Pond. Norm’s Pond is one of our constructed freshwater ponds, surrounded by wax myrtles and host to alligators, frogs, nesting wading birds, Common Gallinules, and roosting White Ibis among others.

On a visit to the pond, as the nesting birds were starting to disperse, we picked up on a peculiar sound, one that took us a few days to place. Our Sherlock Holmes instincts kicked in. First guess was a frog. However, being a small island surrounded by salt water, we have a fairly small repertoire of amphibians. So, we reviewed the frog calls of species found nearby, but no matches.

Next guess would be a bird, but over the course of the summer we became very familiar with the sounds coming from the rookery (and they were quite amusing!). We ruled out all of the usual suspects.

Our next clue surfaced when tucked into the wax myrtles, we spied a beige spot of feathers–an Anhinga chick! Upon closer examination, there were at least two nests with three chicks each in relatively the same location that Anhingas had attempted to nest earlier this spring.

Turns out, our mysterious sound was that of Anhinga chicks begging for food. Listen to some Anhinga sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We first noticed the chicks at the end of August, which is unusually late, and by the end of September we were watching the fledglings clumsily dance and fly from perches around the pond. Although this year’s first nesting attempt by Anhingas ended in predation, we are excited to see these have success and to solve our mystery!


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Early Fall on Little St. Simons

September 22nd was the first official day of Fall, and we’re starting to see the effects here on Little St. Simons Island. The Muhlenbergia (also called Muhley grass) is starting to bloom, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are making more appearances along Beach Road, and the shorebirds are starting migrate in large numbers. Just three days ago, we counted 70 American Oystercatchers, 125 Marbled Godwits, and 211 Black Skimmers–all in one group at Sancho Panza!

Another fall staple is the fallow deer rut. The bucks have full antlers now that they use to mark and defend their territory. Just yesterday, we came across a spotted buck who left behind this excellent example of territorial behavior:

Traces of fallow deer rut. Photo from Britt.

You can clearly see where the buck used his antlers to scrape the ground beneath this tree. He then left his urine for scent and marked the tree as well; can you see all the broken branches?

Fall on Little St. Simons Island is a time of stunning floral and faunal changes. We look forward to sharing these with you over the coming weeks, stay tuned!


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Black Skimmers nest on North Main Beach

Black Skimmers ward off possible threats to their colony.

We are nearing the end of the summer and the end of nesting season for our shorebirds. However, the Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) have set up a pretty sizable colony on the northern tip of our beach, near Sancho Panza Creek. We estimate over 75 nests in the colony so far!

There are several beach-nesting birds that congregate in colonies including some gulls, terns, and the Black Skimmers. By laying nests at the same time in the same area, each nesting pair is reducing its chances of having their nest lost in the event that a predator comes in. Also, the Black Skimmers can become aggressive when defending their colony against outside threats.

However, if a predator like a raccoon (which frequent our beaches) were to discover the colony, they could wipe out the entire colony in just a few nights. This year, we are employing a new management strategy–electric fencing.

On June 21, we set up the first stretches of electric fencing around ten nests. With two separate areas fenced in, one was electrified and one was not. A few weeks later, the colony had expanded with nest “scrapes” spread over a much larger area.

Skimmer chick runs to its parent.

In mid July, we encompassed all of the scrapes and nests we had found with the electrified fence and haven’t seen any signs of predation by raccoons or other mammalian predators since.


The chicks and eggs are very well camouflaged!



Some of the earliest laid nests have begun to hatch, and there are several chicks running around within the colony. The chicks are still susceptible to predators, and as they start to move around we are worried they might venture outside the protection of the fence. After talking with members of our Ecological Advisory Board who suggested the chicks might move around in search of shade, we erected some temporary shade shelters within the colony.

Shade structures within the colony should prevent discourage chicks from leaving the fence.

We will continue to monitor the colony, and hopefully the Black Skimmers will continue their success!



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Naturalist Fact: Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Herons can be found year-round at Little St. Simons Island. These mid-sized wading birds received their name because they are most active during the evening hours, but they can be seen during the day as well. Black-crowned Night Herons are most easily recognized by their piercing red eyes, yellow legs, and black crown. To distinguish them from a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, note that Yellow-crowned Night Herons have a white or yellow crown, not black.

It is suspected that Black-crowned Night Herons forage at night because they are outcompeted in the daytime hours by larger wading birds. While they eat mostly fish, they have developed another interesting hunting strategy: they have been known to nest in the same sites as other herons and egrets, using their protection during the day, and preying upon the other nests at night. This picture was taken early one morning in the rookery at Norm’s Pond—it seems as though this Black-crowned Night Heron is demonstrating this fascinating behavior!

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Naturalist Fact of the Week: Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks can be spotted on Little St. Simons Island in the late spring and summer months. Traveling from their wintering grounds in South America, Nighthawks nest across most of North America. They nest on open ground (including the dunes at our beaches), laying two speckled, dark gray eggs. The female will incubate the eggs for 2-3 weeks, leaving the nest to feed in the evening. The adults have cryptic brown coloration, making them almost impossible to spot while sitting on a nest or roosting on the ground.

Nighthawks are crepuscular, feeding and dawn and dusk. Their tiny bills and large mouths help them feed on insects, catching them as they fly. Canadian breeding populations and populations in the Northeast United States have been listed as threatened. Indiscriminate insecticides reducing food sources are a contributing factor to declining Nighthawk populations. Nesting on the ground also makes the eggs vulnerable to raccoons, opossums, ghost crabs, and other predators.

Contrary to what their name suggests, the Nighthawk is not a hawk. They are in the same family as Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-widows. Chuck-wills-widows and Nighthawks can be spotted after dark by their red eye-shine as they roost on the ground.

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