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: White Peacock

White Peacock butterfly

White Peacock butterfly

The White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is a tropical butterfly that can be spotted in southern Florida and southern Texas year-round and along the Georgia and South Carolina coast as a stray. However, we have been spotting several on Little St. Simons Island this fall.

This butterfly prefers open habitats like roadsides, gardens and fields. On Little St. Simons, we have been spotting them along Beach Road, near the gazebo, and in the inter-dune meadows. The adults will nectar on many of the flowers in fall bloom, and lay their eggs on Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and water hyssop (Bacopa monieri).

White Peacock caterpillar

White Peacock caterpillar

When butterflies lay eggs in late summer or fall, sometimes the eggs will overwinter on the plant, and hatch in the spring with the new foliage growth. Since butterfly eggs usually only take 3-10 days to hatch, eggs laid here in October probably have time to hatch and feed before temperatures drop too low. Another adaptation for fall caterpillars is to form a chrysalis, but not emerge until spring.

The White Peacock has a wingspan of about two to three inches, and can be recognized by silvery white wings with an orange-brown border. Each forewing has a single round black spot, in addition to two black round spots on each hind wing.

Please like & share:

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


Please like & share:

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)

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Lichens


Crustose lichen commonly found on Southern Magnolia trees on LSSI.


Foliose lichen on a Southern Red Cedar.


Fruticose lichen on a downed oak branch.


Lichens can be found in several habitats across Little St. Simons Island, and they take a variety of forms and colors. Lichens have the ability to survive long dry periods, but after a good soaking rain, they will catch your eye with their bright colors and interesting textures.

Lichens are actually not a plant, but a composite of fungi and a photobiont that behave together as a single organism. The fungus usually provides the structure and facilitates the uptake of water and minerals, while the photobiont generates sugars through photosynthesis. The photobiont is usually a green algae, but can also be a cyanobacteria.  In most cases, the fungus and its photobiont would not exist outside of the lichen association.

Lichens have the ability to grow on soil-less surfaces, and therefore are one of the first colonizers in many plant communities. They are very slow-growing, but can derive most of their water and nutrients from the air and rainfall. On Little St. Simons Island, you can find lichens growing on the smooth bark of Southern Magnolias or Southern Red Cedars. You will also find it colonizing open sandy areas.

Lichens can be divided into three groups based on their morphology. Crustose lichens grow flat against hard surfaces (like a crust), and are the simplest form of lichen. As they grow, they radiate out from the center, so the newest growth is on the perimeter. Foliose lichens grow in a more “leafy” structure, but stay close to the surface they inhabit. Fruticose lichens are more shrub-like, growing on a stalk or exhibiting a highly branching, more complicated structure. On Little St. Simons, you can find lichens that belong to all three of these groups.

Please like & share:

Living Shoreline promotes fish habitat and erosion control

Barrier islands are very dynamic landscapes. As the tides, currents, and winds sweep around the island, it continuously changes the landscape. Where you first arrive to the dock at Little St. Simons Island, there has been a wooden bulkhead adjacent to the dock creating a vertical barrier between the creek system and the upland.

Imagine a section of healthy marsh joining the higher ground and the creek. That’s what we invision as we replace this bulkhead with a Living Shoreline.

Bulkheads will weaken and eventually fail over time, and we have been planning on replacing the current bulkhead (constructed in 1995) for several years. However, rather than building another bulkhead that inevitably will have to be replaced again sometime in the future, we are putting in a “Living Shoreline.”

This Living Shoreline will be a more natural slope from the upland into the marsh habitat, and as the name suggests, create excellent habitat for the many organisms that utilize the different zones between the low tide mark and the high tide mark. We will be planting native plants that thrive in the marsh zones whose root systems will help stabilize the sediments, and using recycled oyster shells as structure to recruit new living oysters to the site, which will create habitat for myriad of marine organisms including several species of fish. To learn more about the benefits and implementation of a Living Shoreline, visit NOAA’s resource pages or learn about a similar project on Sapelo Island.

Tom Bliss with UGA’s MAREX and Jan Mackinnon with DNR’s Coastal Resources Division remove their nets after a fish sampling session.

Along with stabilizing the shoreline in a more natural and efficient way, one of the goals of this project is to enhance fish habitat. In order to get some baseline data on what is already hanging out around our dock, with the help of the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension (MAREX) team, we have been sampling the fish populations around the dock for the past year.

Next comes the construction! Scheduled to start in the middle of February, we will begin removing the old bulkhead, and creating the living shoreline. With the guidance of cicil engineer Tom Havens and landscape architect Thomas Angell who specializes in ecologically-sensitive environmental design, we will transform our current bulkhead garden into a seamless junction with the marsh.

In the meantime, as you park your car at the Hampton Marina, you might notice a mountain of oyster shells. As these are put into mesh bags (8,000 mesh bags to be exact!), they will be the foundation for which oyster spat (free-swimming larval oysters) will attach. Overtime, they will grow into a living oyster reef, one of those living oyster reefs that are vital to the functioning of the marsh ecosystem.

Of course, Little St. Simons Island cannot take on such a big project on our own. Our primary partners include: UGA Marine Extension, The Nature ConservancySapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Divsion, NOAAWe are also working with volunteers from these organizations to help implement the project: Coastal WildScapes, Americorps.

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Southern Flannel Moth

Adult Southern Flannel Moth

The Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) is named for the texture of its wings, and is found commonly in woodlands and forests in the Southeast. The adult moth emerges in the spring, after having overwintered in its cocoon. The moth will only live about 5-7 days in which time the female deposits her eggs one of a variety of woody plants.

The larva of the flannel moth, also known as the Puss Caterpillar, grows to no more than an inch in length and is covered in dense gray to tan hairs, giving it a furry appearance. The hairs appear to be combed into a crest at the to

p of its body and extend in a tail-like tuft from the back. Younger caterpillars’ hairs are white and wispier.

Puss Caterpillar

Although this caterpillar may look soft, it is armed with an intense defense strategy. Venemous spines are hidden beneath the tuft of hairs, and when agitated, this caterpillar can administer one of the most painful stings of any caterpillar found in the United States. The puss caterpillar feeds on woody plants, and it is not a stranger to the Live Oak dominated forests of Little St. Simons Island. If you come across this little creature, marvel at its peculiarity, but don’t pet it!

Please like & share:

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.

Please like & share:

Naturalist Fact: Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia hemifusa)

Prickly pear fruits are ripening in the fall. Almost ready for sorbet!

The prickly pear cactus (also called devil’s tongue and Indian fig) is a native species of cactus found throughout the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. It prefers the well-drained gravel and sandy soils found on the island. They thrive in the open sunlight of early plant succession communities and disturbed areas. These iconic desert plants line Beach Road, Marsh Road, and can also be found on the south end of Little St. Simons Island.

The prickly pear can grow to be about three feet tall, with succulent, segmented stems forming wide “pads.” Cacti’s leaves are modified into spines, and on the prickly pear these can be two inches long and protrude from the pads and fruits. Also covering these surfaces are “glochids,” or tiny hair-like barbed bristles that can also irritate your skin.

Showy yellow flowers of late spring give way to a cylindrical fruit that ripens to a purple color in the fall. Both the pads and the fruits of the prickly pear are edible. The melony-tasting fruit can be incorporated into jams, jellies, and syrups (and are a good source of Vitamin C!) Our chefs also use prickly pear fruit in a refreshing dessert sorbet.



Please like & share:

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!


Please like & share: