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 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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Beach Babies!

We are in full swing with the American Oystercatcher Nesting Project and we are off to a fantastic start! With past research, it has been shown that American Oystercatchers have difficulty nesting successfully due to depredation and tidal events. The project helps with alleviating these circumstances by assisting during the most vulnerable time of reproduction-incubation. Every other nest we find on the beaches of LSSI is a control nest which we leave alone and only visually monitor from a respectful distance. The remaining nests are manipulated and the eggs are collected, replaced, and brought to the Lodge and placed in the incubator. When the eggs hatch they are returned their respective nests and go on to be raised like other American Oystercatcher chicks. Our first nest was laid on March 10 and the adults did a fabulous job incubating their eggs. The chicks hatched earlier this week becoming the first known American Oystercatcher chicks in Georgia this year. I had a chance to see them up close and personal while I was out monitoring on Tuesday.  The American Oystercatcher chicks instinctually hide when they are alerted of danger by their parents and as you can see in this photo their coloration helps conceal them among the beach debris. Because the chicks and eggs are both so well camouflaged, they are easily stepped on when walking above the high tide line. Please watch your step when you go out on the beach this summer and remember that staying below the high tide line will help give the nesting shorebirds and seabirds a fighting chance.

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