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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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.

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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

 

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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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Black Skimmers nest on North Main Beach

Black Skimmers ward off possible threats to their colony.

We are nearing the end of the summer and the end of nesting season for our shorebirds. However, the Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) have set up a pretty sizable colony on the northern tip of our beach, near Sancho Panza Creek. We estimate over 75 nests in the colony so far!

There are several beach-nesting birds that congregate in colonies including some gulls, terns, and the Black Skimmers. By laying nests at the same time in the same area, each nesting pair is reducing its chances of having their nest lost in the event that a predator comes in. Also, the Black Skimmers can become aggressive when defending their colony against outside threats.

However, if a predator like a raccoon (which frequent our beaches) were to discover the colony, they could wipe out the entire colony in just a few nights. This year, we are employing a new management strategy–electric fencing.

On June 21, we set up the first stretches of electric fencing around ten nests. With two separate areas fenced in, one was electrified and one was not. A few weeks later, the colony had expanded with nest “scrapes” spread over a much larger area.

Skimmer chick runs to its parent.

In mid July, we encompassed all of the scrapes and nests we had found with the electrified fence and haven’t seen any signs of predation by raccoons or other mammalian predators since.

 

The chicks and eggs are very well camouflaged!

 

 

Some of the earliest laid nests have begun to hatch, and there are several chicks running around within the colony. The chicks are still susceptible to predators, and as they start to move around we are worried they might venture outside the protection of the fence. After talking with members of our Ecological Advisory Board who suggested the chicks might move around in search of shade, we erected some temporary shade shelters within the colony.

Shade structures within the colony should prevent discourage chicks from leaving the fence.

We will continue to monitor the colony, and hopefully the Black Skimmers will continue their success!

 

 

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