Norm’s Pond Rookery Update

Nesting great egrets at Norm's Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Nesting great egrets at Norm’s Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Spring has arrived on Little St. Simons Island, and with the warmer weather comes wading bird activity at Norm’s Pond. Great egrets, snowy egrets, and anhingas are strutting their breeding plumage, building nests, and laying eggs on islands in the pond. Nests will begin to hatch in the next couple of weeks.

Norm’s Pond is an active sediment borrow pit, with the sand collected from the area used for island road construction and maintenance. The pit was connected to a nearby artesian well and flooded. An upland peninsula that stretched into the center of the pond was ditched and made into an island to create rookery nesting habitat. Predators, like raccoons, are unwilling to jump or swim to the island to eat eggs and chicks due to alligators that patrol the pond. As a result, the birds that nest on the island have a much higher success rate than those that nest on the edge of the pond.

Recently, we created a new island at Norm’s Pond. Another peninsula, that usually had high predation rates, was trenched and cut off from the mainland. Great egrets and anhingas are currently nesting on the new island. Ecological staff conducts weekly rookery surveys to monitor nests and chicks. From these surveys, we have documented more fledged chicks (chicks that can fly) on the islands than the pond edge. We predict that trend will continue for the new island as well.

Guests have an excellent opportunity to experience the rookery from the Norm’s Pond tower. The tower provides close views of courtship, nest building, and chick rearing without causing stress to the birds. Many guests have also observed the large alligator, famously known as “Norm”, sunbathing along the pond’s edge. Several other bird species roost, or rest, at Norm’s Pond including tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, cattle egret, white ibis, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills.

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Management Technician

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Norm’s Pond Rookery

For years, a variety of wading birds have gathered at Norm’s Pond to nest. Wading birds typically look for islands surrounded by freshwater wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are home to American alligators, who act as the birds’ best defense against mammalian predators, such as raccoons.  According to Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Non-game program, there are 10 other nesting colonies, or rookeries, like this one on the coast. All of these colonies are monitored by GADNR at least twice a season by fly-overs and some are monitored additionally on the ground.

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm's Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Our wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond is winding down, but not for lack of activity earlier in the season. This year we saw activity begin at the end of February. Tim Keyes noted that the mild winter resulted in earlier wading bird nesting along the coast. Breeding season also varies between species and this is to ensure less competition in the highly desirable nesting locations.

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Little St. Simons Island’s rookery at Norm’s Pond provided perfect nesting habitat for 7 species of wading birds. The first of the wading birds to arrive were the great egrets, shortly followed by snowy egrets, tricolored herons, anhinga’s, cattle egrets, white ibis, and black-crowned night herons. Nest building, courtship, and copulation were observed as the birds brought sticks to the islands and danced with their partners to show off their brilliant breeding plumage.

The new two-story observation tower provides a spectacular view of the nests on one of the two islands at Norm’s Pond and along the perimeter of the pond. It also allows us to more accurately monitor the nests. We have been following the nests since the end of February and have found that as predicted, the nests on the islands fared better than the nests on the edge of the pond. This provides a perfect example to the important role that American alligators play as a keystone species, here on the coast. Without the American alligators to patrol the waters at the rookery, raccoons and other predators would be more likely to take advantage of the buffet of bird eggs.

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

The middle of the nesting season is the busiest time at the rookery. In May we had over 80 nests that could be observed from the viewing tower! We knew of additional nests on the far side of the pond and deep in the vegetation on the islands that could not be easily seen from the tower. Woodstorks and a couple of roseate spoonbills in breeding plumage visited the rookery but did not nest here.  There was also a yellow-crowned night heron fledgling seen recently which was an exciting find – this was the first sign that yellow-crowned night herons’ had nested at the site.

Four anhinga pairs were nesting earlier in the season and two of those nests each fledged (produced chicks that can fly) three chicks. Twenty nests are currently active at the rookery and are all most likely re-nests from pairs that were unsuccessful during their previous nesting attempts. We expect nesting at Norm’s Pond to be done by the end of September. Overall, the rookery has been successful this year and we are fortunate to be able to have such up-close and personal viewing opportunities during such an important part of the wading birds’ life cycle.

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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!

 

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Naturalist Fact: Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Herons can be found year-round at Little St. Simons Island. These mid-sized wading birds received their name because they are most active during the evening hours, but they can be seen during the day as well. Black-crowned Night Herons are most easily recognized by their piercing red eyes, yellow legs, and black crown. To distinguish them from a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, note that Yellow-crowned Night Herons have a white or yellow crown, not black.

It is suspected that Black-crowned Night Herons forage at night because they are outcompeted in the daytime hours by larger wading birds. While they eat mostly fish, they have developed another interesting hunting strategy: they have been known to nest in the same sites as other herons and egrets, using their protection during the day, and preying upon the other nests at night. This picture was taken early one morning in the rookery at Norm’s Pond—it seems as though this Black-crowned Night Heron is demonstrating this fascinating behavior!

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It’s nesting time… with a special guest appearance!

Male (dark neck) and female (tan neck) Anhingas at Norm's Pond.

For the past couple of years, wading birds have set up a rookery at Norm’s Pond. This year the usual suspects in their stunning breeding plumage have already shown up.  There are at least four pairs of  Great Egrets who have already nested and are incubating their sky-blue eggs. The Snowy Egrets are in putting on a great show of courtship as they pick their mates. There are also some Tricolored Heron’s hopping about the branches.

The ones that have really gotten everyone talking are the Anhingas! Similar in appearance and ecology to the Double-crested Cormorant that is common here, the Anhinga is a rare visitor to our island. The Anhinga’s range extends from the coast of North Carolina through Texas. They prefer slow-moving freshwater habitats, presumably why we don’t see too many on Little St. Simons Island.

Like the Cormorant, the Anhinga is a dark water bird with a long slender neck. However, the Anhinga has a sharply pointed bill, and whitish/silver feathers on the top of its wings. When in their breeding plumage (like the ones at Norm’s Pond shown in the pictures) they have a brilliant blueish green ring around their eye.

Anhingas nest in small trees or shrubs near the water, and the male begins gathering nesting material before it has a mate. The pair at Norm’s Pond has a nest built, and we eagerly await the eggs, and about a month later, the chicks!

For more information on Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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