Considering all the time I’ve spent in Florida the last couple years, you’d think I’d have seen a snowy plover by now, right? Well, I FINALLY got my life snowy at the end of last year when we spent Christmastime at Cape San Blas on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Cape San Blas is one of my favorite places on the “forgotten coast” – not too many people, no condos or hotels, and a 30 minute drive to a decent restaurant or grocery store. My kind of place!
I very nearly stumbled over this bird! It was so totally camouflaged in its winter plumage (and so tame!) that, were it not for its movement, I never would have seen it. I wonder how many others I’ve stumbled past without ever seeing…
You might notice in my photo that the bird is banded – only one leg is visible – I found out that this bird is a regular winter resident at St. Joseph’s State Park on Cape San Blas, but that it breeds elsewhere.
Snowies are sweet birds – small and plain compared to the piping plovers I know so well – but pretty similar in their habits. And like other Florida birds, exceptionally tame. I wonder why that is?
Hide and Seek (beachnesting bird version) is a game where threatened and endangered chicks attempt to conceal their location in order to grow up and survive. It’s pretty basic, but various challenges have arisen throughout the years making the game more difficult. All you need to play are a few beachnesting friends and some hiding and spying skills. This game is a great way for chicks to practice real-world survival skills!
Step one: find a suitable location
An outdoor location near the coast works best and it should have plenty of sand and pebbles or clam shells. It will be necessary to set boundaries for hiding or you will have chicks running off to too many far-off locations. It’s not called Run a Mile and Go Seek!
If you’re playing with your parents around, make sure they know what’s going on. They may not want you hiding in the driftwood at the wrack line, under the lifeguard stand, or too close to the water.
Try to play in different places every time. If you play every game in the same spot, then the birds who play “it” (predators) will remember the good places and search there first.
Step two: select the players and set down the rules
If you have players of different ages, take this into consideration. Younger chicks can fit more places, but they sometimes choose less-than-brilliant places to hide and don’t have the longest of attention spans.
If you do not set down rules, you will have chicks running to places that shouldn’t be hidden in — either unhatched eggs end up breaking or another pair’s territory gets intruded upon — or someone gets eaten by a laughing gull.
Make sure everyone stays safe. You don’t want your friends running out in front of loose dogs or hiding beneath a fish crow’s perch.
Step three: choose someone to be “it”
Working out who is “It” can be done a variety of ways, for instance: the youngest chick might be “It” first; or the chick who is closest to fledging can be “it” first; or use an elimination word game, such as “One Potato, Two Potato” or similar game. Or just pick a number out of a hat, and #1 is “It”.
When playing with chicks, an adult is often a good person to be “it”
If one chick is older than the rest, they might make a natural “It.” Adult birds have longer attention spans and can think outside of the box better than their offspring.
Step four: start counting out loud
Once the bird who will be “It” has been chosen, he or she closes his or her eyes and begins counting out loud to a decided number at a steady pace. Or they could say a rhyme or sing a song. Anything that kills some time so everyone else can go hide!
Make sure there’s no cheating! The bird who is “It” needs to have their eyes closed, wings over their eyes, and preferably facing the water. No peeking!
Step five: start hiding!
All of the chicks who are not “It” should run off and quietly hide from the bird who is counting. The bird who is “It” is not allowed to peek at the birds hiding from him or her. Make sure you’re quiet as you’re hiding or “It” can use his or her ears to tell the general direction you went.
Once you find your hiding spot, be silent and still
You don’t want to give yourself up once you’re hidden! . If you’re noisy, even the best hiding spot won’t conceal you.
Remember the goal is to be invisible!
When a young chick is “it”, don’t hide too well…
or the game can get too frustrating for them
The younger you are, the more frustrated you could get with other chicks who are really good hiders.
Step six: keep your eyes open and start searching!
Once the bird who is “It” has finished counting, he or she yells “Ready or not, here I come!” At this point, they must try to find all of the other chicks who have hidden. Be sure to look with your eyes and listen with your ears!
If you are hiding and “It” is close to discovering you, move deftly. Crawling or slithering are the best options. However, if it is too late, be still and silent. The “It” can actually overlook you and go away.
The chicks who are hiding can move or switch hiding places, if they so choose. It’s a good idea to change positions and go hide in a place the seeker has already looked. That’s called a survival strategy.
So, where did we leave off? Wasn’t it some time last year? Is that even possible? Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s have come and gone again. That just keeps happening, doesn’t it?
I was happily hidden away for most of the holidays on the gulf coast of Florida. We spent a couple days around Thanksgiving in Cedar Key and decided to go back and spend three weeks there during my winter break. Cedar Key isn’t the sort of place you’ve probably ever heard of; in fact, it’s said that Cedar Key isn’t the sort of place you can easily stumble upon, as it’s just so out of the way. But, it’s perfect for someone like me, who enjoys having absolutely nothing to do.
The draw for us there was the birds, of course! We got out most days in the kayak to explore the marshes and to see what we could see. We found American Oystercatchers (even one banded in NJ) but never could locate the big numbers that winter in the area because we were limited by the tides and how far we could paddle safely. There’s so many birds that winter there – I look forward to sharing some pix with you!
I also had the chance to finally meet FC from Pure Florida, who first put Cedar Key on my radar a couple years ago. If you don’t know FC, he’s a science teacher at the sweet little Cedar Key School and keeps a long-standing blog about all things Florida. Thanks so much for the quick tour, FC! Maybe next time I can meet Bear?
Ever felt an angel’s breath in the gentle breeze? A teardrop in the falling rain? Hear a whisper amongst the rustle of leaves? Or been kissed by a lone snowflake? Nature is an angel’s favorite hiding place.
Common Terns didn’t breed at any of my sites this summer, but they visited with the gushing of the tide, shaking themselves and their silvery fish. Angels, I’m sure.
American Oystercatchers were such a heartbreak this summer, I can’t even tell you!
I’ve been struggling with how to write about my beach-nesting bird experience in NJ… I’m not really sure what that’s about, but there’s no question that I enjoyed myself.
Was the season a success? I think so, but there are so many factors that have a hand in the success or failure of these birds and the truth, I think, is that I don’t have enough experience to understand yet how the factors all work together.
We had 8 pairs of AMOYs (American Oystercatchers) who made 14 nest attempts. Nine chicks hatched and 8 fledged. Eight fledges is a good number! Only one pair succeeded on their first nest attempt and one pair didn’t ever succeed, despite three tries. These are just numbers, really, and give no hint of the sweat and tears (mine) or the various struggles involved.
American Oystercatchers are comical birds and shy, as a rule. Each pair had a distinct personality and perspective on life as an Oystercatcher. It was a huge privilege to know these birds as individuals and to watch over them during the season. Unlike Piping Plovers who are so hard to detect on the beach, American Oystercatchers are very visible and were a constant source of entertainment and worry for me.
The 4 pairs that had the easiest (?) breeding success did so on a dredge spoil island. I loved going out there to check on them, despite the nearly impenetrable phragmites that covered much of the island. Aside from the occasional kayaker at low tide, I usually had the place to myself and had to go into full stealth mode to even get a look at the adults or chicks because the birds there were so shy. There were also breeding Killdeer and Yellow Warblers and a couple of Willets that went into such amazing histrionics at the sight of me that it was practically impossible to sneak up on anything…
I remember feeling complete surprise (and then panic!) the first time my boss brought me there and showed me an Oystercatcher nest in its wonderful camouflage along the shoreline of the inlet. In the weeks that followed, I got pretty good at the game of “I Spy” with the Oysercatchers and their eggs, but wisely recorded not only a nearby landmark for each nest, but its GPS coordinates as well, so that I could find it again. All bets were off once the chicks hatched, of course, and the adults did some of their very best hiding and distraction displays once there were chicks running around. Because each of the birds there was banded, I learned to know their individual territories and knew where they were likely to hide their chicks when I came calling to check in on them. I’d set up my scope in likely places looking for chicks and, spotting the adults, would promise, “Just show me your babies and I’ll go away…” thus, I tried to honor their need for privacy by leaving them alone as much as possible. Sad days were those when a nest was inexplicably destroyed or just vanished, or when a healthy chick went missing. Fortunately, I got to watch 5 chicks hatch, fatten up and learn to fly (and hide from me!) there and will never forget the wonder of that or the surprise of coming upon a nest of hatching chicks.
Obviously, pairs that nest on public beaches have many more challenges and most didn’t fare as well as those nesting in seclusion on the dredge spoil island. I came to expect those AMOY nests to fail, sadly. And there’s nothing sadder than a pair of Oystercatchers with a just failed nest. They hang around together in odd corners of the beach, they scrape and mate and posture and call while beach-goers, unaware of their struggles, look on. Some will lay a new nest in an improbable place and do their best to keep it safe, until it, too, fails and the cycle starts all over again. Some just give up and spend the remainder of the summer without purpose, a sad reminder of our failure to be responsible stewards of the habitats these birds need to thrive..
We had just one pair that was successful on a public beach and it took them two tries. Their first nest disappeared just days before it was due to hatch. They moved 50 ft. or so away from their first attempt, laid their eggs right out on the open beach, and hatched and fledged 3 chicks! This despite near constant predation on the Least Tern colony that shared the site, a very active fishing pier and jetty, and a very popular bathing beach just steps away. I was never able to determine what caused their first nest to fail, nor did I figure out what was killing so many Least Terns at the site – I suspected feral cats – but I did trap numerous opossums and, to my great surprise, a red fox. I could easily write a very humorous account of the many ministrations I and my interns went through trying to trap whatever predator was causing such havoc there, but suffice it to say that we were on pins and needles for most of the season. I was away at a baseball game on my day off when I got the text message that the nest had hatched. “I’m so happy for them!” my intern said. It was a huge relief, but really only the beginning of our worries!
The chicks grew up without incident; there were a few days of worry when one of the adults was hooked by a fisherman casting on the jetty, but he did the right thing and untangled the bird and removed his hook from its wing – which was scarily droopy for a few days – and it recovered. The chicks’ official fledge date was only a day or two before I left NJ to come home, but the last I heard all was well there on the beach.
Nice numbers of AMOYs winter in NJ, but many fly south (immature birds may not return to the beach or marsh where they hatched for a couple years) as far as the gulf coast of Florida. I’m hoping to see a couple NJ-banded AMOYs when I visit there during Thanksgiving break – anything to extend my season with Oystercatchers!
Most Octobers find us on Jekyll Island for a week or so, to enjoy the gorgeous weather and the beach at its finest season. The days – and the ocean – are warm enough for swimming and the nights are just cool enough to make you enjoy the breeze.
We always make it a point to visit JIBS – the Jekyll Island Banding Station – for a couple hours during our stay. I enjoy the chance to see birds up close and I also like hanging out with the folks who run the station. Often, it’s the only time I see these friends all year. It feels good to hang out with others who are as nerdy about birds in their own way! Our timing was off somewhat this year, in that most of the days were “slow”, but still the common birds are especially beautiful when you can appreciate the fine details of their feathers (like those of the white-eyed vireo pictured here) up close. I come away from any visit having learned something new.
It might be easy to wonder about the benefits of bird-banding, at least until you find a banded bird in the field yourself. Information on migration, mortality rates and range are some of the things that researchers learn from banding.
Another must-visit-place is Gould’s Inlet on St. Simmons Island; I go there to enjoy the birds at low-tide. I’m always hoping to see a couple Piping Plover. Each year, I look for PIPLs that are banded, as the inlet is a popular place for wintering birds. I’ve found 3 banded birds there, and at least a dozen others in the couple years I’ve visited during the month of October. I report the band combinations and in return find out a little info about the bird. Two of the three banded birds are from the Great Lakes and this year we saw a bird from the Great Plains population. Especially interesting is the PIPL in the photo – I first saw this bird (hatched on the UP of Michigan in 2007) in 2012 and we saw it again this year! It’s 7 years old and apparently spends every winter at Gould’s Inlet. This bird, too, feels like an old friend almost, one that I can only recognize because of the colored bands on its legs. Pretty cool, huh?
There is something deep within us that sobs at endings. Why, God, does everything have to end? Why does all nature grow old? Why do spring and summer have to go?
~ Joe Wheeler
My summer of sun and fun at the Jersey Shore has come to an end and I’m back in ATL to wait out the off season…
We packed up the cars, the dog, the bunny and at least 5 gallons of beach sand in every nook and cranny of my belongings and took the long way home along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve seen these mountains in Spring, but in late Summer they show their true glory framed by blooming Joe Pye and Black-Eyed Susan. It was already feeling like Fall last week at 6,000 feet above sea level, even if there were still a couple Least Tern chicks waiting for the sky back on my NJ beaches.
I’d thought I’d be despondent at leaving the beach and its birds, but it was time; the work I was there to do was done. My last week on the beach had been filled with gray days and a cool northeast wind. I felt the season beginning to shift gears, felt the summer fading into the wind. The birds, for the most part, had already moved on.
The idea that I’d have time to blog about any of the work that I was doing was ridiculous! I hope to revisit some of the highlights (and the failures) here in the weeks to come, and to process all that I saw and learned. I miss the beach already, of course; I miss staring out at the sea for hours, miss the little dramas that played themselves out among the beach-nesting birds that I was privileged to know, miss being a part of something important.
Anyway so… stay tuned! And in the meantime, tell me about what you’ve been up to…