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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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

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