Naturalist Fact: Red-winged Blackbird

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

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

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, allaboutbirds.org

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle, allaboutbirds.org

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.

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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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