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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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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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: Canvasback Duck

Canvasbacks can be found in open waters around LSSI during the winter months as they migrate south and then again on their northern migration back to the breeding grounds. Canvasbacks breed in the prairie-pothole region of southern Canada and the females usually construct their nest over water.

Canvasbacks can dive up to 30 feet below the surface when feeding and prefer aquatic plants, but their diet also includes invertebrates such as snails and insect larvae and small clams.

 The canvasback was known as the “King of the Ducks” during the market hunting days of the late 1800's and early 1900's and because of their culinary reputation, canvasbacks were the most valuable of commercially hunted ducks, bringing three or four

times as much as mallards and other species. Canvasback numbers have rebounded since commercial market hunting was outlawed with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Today, the canvasback makes up just under 5% of Georgia’s annual duck harvest.

Canvasbacks are considered one of the fastest of all ducks on the wing with recorded speeds of over 70mph and, when migrating, canvasbacks often fly in an impressive V-shaped formation that resembles a squadron of airplanes at high altitude.

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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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