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

Please like & share:

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.

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Red-winged Blackbird

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

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

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,

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle,

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.

Please like & share:

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.)

Please like & share:

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!


Please like & share:

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.

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

Aside from the blooming Muhley grass and the huge swarms of tree swallows we see in the fall, another exciting seasonal indicator is the return of the Northern Harrier.  These hawks are relatively easy to identify as they swoop low over the marshes, with long wings and a long tail.  A white patch just above the tail is often visible.  Male harriers are a pale silver color, while the females are dark brown and significantly larger than the males.  Interestingly, we tend to see many more females than males on Little St. Simons Island. 

Harriers hunt for a variety of animals including small mammals, birds, and reptiles and even eat carrion occasionally.  Unlike many other birds of prey, these hawks have owl-like facial disks which help them use sound to locate prey.  They also have very soft feathers to aid in quiet flight. 

Their breeding range extends throughout the most northern states and into Canada, where they nest on the ground in dense grass or thick vegetation.  Most birds migrate and spend the winter throughout the southern U.S. and into Central America.  While they have experienced some declines in population, the harrier is not considered a species of high conservation concern.

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Tree Swallows

Throughout most of the fall, we are treated to a spectacular show as thousands of tree swallows congregate during their migration.  Tree swallows, like all other swallows, feed primarily on insects captured as they fly.  They have short wide bills which open into gaping mouths, well suited for scooping insects out of the air.  However, unlike other swallows, the tree swallow will also eat berries.  On Little St Simons Island, their activity peaks during October, and we will commonly seen huge flocks feeding together on wax myrtle berries.  Berries and other plant material may make up to 20% of this species’ diet, especially during the winter when insects are scarce.  Tree swallows breed throughout much of northern North America and winter farther north than any other species of swallow.  Their wintering range includes coastal Georgia, Florida and south into Central America.  They migrate in huge flocks, primarily by day.  We will see them again as they head north in March and throughout the spring.  Keep an eye out for them along Beach Road and near Sancho Panza beach—anywhere there are dense stands of wax myrtle there may be clouds of tree swallows!

Please like & share:

An Oystercatcher Incubation Project Update

It’s a very exciting time of year for everyone here who is involved with the American Oystercatcher Incubation project.  During the second week of June, with the help of Tim Keyes, we successfully caught and banded five chicks!  Two of the chicks were natural nests, which we did not manipulate at all.  Three chicks were incubated and hatched here in the lodge, while their parents sat on wooden eggs on the beach.  The ‘dummy’ eggs keep the adult birds committed to their nest—if we simply snatched their eggs and brought them back to the incubator, the birds would re-nest somewhere else.  The wooden eggs are staked down into the sand so they remain in place even if the nest gets washed over in high tides, or if a raccoon happens to find them.  We’ve actually collected eggs with teeth marks at the end of the season!

A natural nest with real eggs and a manipulated nest with wooden eggs

This is the third year for the incubation project.  Previous research has shown that the incubation period is most critical for oystercatchers, and that it’s during that period when most nests are lost.  The American Oystercatcher is listed as a threatened species here in Georgia, and so efforts like this are critical to help increase the population of these striking beach nesting birds. 

Chicks returned to a nest

After the chicks hatch in the incubator, we return them to their parents on the beach, and then monitor their survival.  When they are about 35 days old, we capture them so that we can band them, as well as record important information like size and weight.  We hope to catch the chicks before they can fly, but they have to be big enough to wear the leg bands.  The band will allow us to identify an individual bird throughout its entire life!  It can be tricky to catch these babies—they run fast, and sometimes they’ll even try to swim to get away.  Once we have them, they calm down, and we work quickly to return them to their parents.  The reunion is wonderful to witness as the chicks run back to their parents and get away from us!

Banding a chick

This morning we banded two more chicks from natural, un-manipulated nests.  Right now, we have a total of eight banded chicks on the beach.  Many of them are near fledging, which means they are learning to fly.  It’s great to watch throughout the season as the little fluff balls we take out to the beach bond with their parents and rapidly grow, lose their fuzzy camouflage, get adults feathers, and then take flight!

A newly banded chick running back to it's parents

Please like & share: