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…
Much of the general beach-going public seems determined to believe that Piping Plovers don’t really exist. Many act as if they’re just an imaginary endangered bird the rest of us have made up to inconvenience dog-walkers or otherwise prevent folks from fully enjoying a day at the beach.
But, I have photographic proof of their existence!
The past couple weeks have been Piping Plover boot camp here. Like the mailman, neither fog nor rain nor blazing sun nor gust of wind stays this courier from the swift completion of her appointed rounds! (The weather has been pretty crappy.) I’m out there on the beach daily trying to piece together tracks and sightings of individual birds to predict where they might nest. There’s been a fair amount of false starts and leads, and a steep learning curve for me, but we’ve got 3 pairs with nests!
I can empathize with the public’s general cluelessness about these birds. They’re really hard to see… even for those of us who are looking for them. They’re designed to be invisible. Just imagine trying to find a tiny bird the color of wet sand on a beach strewn with shell shards. It’s not easy! If nothing else, it gives you a real respect for the power of camouflage. But as a result, the public is left looking at yards and yards of “empty” roped-off beach that they’re not allowed to use and wondering what all the fuss is about.
I spent my afternoon “off” the other day visiting with the plovers out at Sandy Hook. The National Park Service monitors the birds there; I just plopped myself down on the beach with my camera, well outside of the roped-off areas, in order to get a general beach-going public sort of view of them. Just to try and see them the way the rest of the world does (or doesn’t!) PIPLs are very agreeable little birds… if you just sit quietly and still enough, they’ll happily share the beach with you. Every little drama of their lives is playing itself out around us on the beaches…
I like to feed on the sparkly parts of the beach.
The dunes hide me well; they’re a good place to rest.
Pebbly and shelly places make me disappear even more.
If I position myself just so, I can have a private bath right at your feet!
My eggs: a masterwork of disguise.
Please share the beach.
Please encourage others to do so.
Please help others to see and respect even the hard-to-see wonders of this world.
These birds live here, too. They’re our neighbors. They need our help.
Every day I make “rounds” to the 7 or so sites that I’m responsible for; ideally I get to the beach first thing in the morning while the news is still current. Oftentimes, like any busy person, I just scan the newspaper’s sections for stories I want to read further…
This story was about a person and a dog breaking the rules. Dogs, even leashed and well-behaved ones, aren’t allowed on most ocean beaches during nesting season. I read this story just about every day on every beach I visit.
The same old suspects here… crows, of course (I think!)
I’ve been watching a pair of Fish Crows at one site collecting nesting material for the past couple days… I was happy to connect the tracks I was seeing in the Rugosa Roses in the protected habitat to the Fish Crows flying past with sticks. The nearby nesting American Oystercatchers are not happy with this news, tho and chase them out of the neighborhood at every opportunity!
CLASSIFIEDS – SINGLES ADS
Headline news in Spring is all about who’s available and where, right? I’m hoping to see this scrape filled up with Piping Plover eggs before very long.
Click to enlarge and see plover tracks!
SOCIAL SCENE – WEDDINGS AND CELEBRATIONS
Weddings (and their associated baby announcements!) are the highlight of the daily social calendar published locally. All we beach-nesting bird people can talk about is who’s expecting and when.
This killdeer couple will be happy parents in 22 – 28 days.
Death notices are published daily and should attempt to give significance and honor to the life lived. Many things that wash up dead each day are surrounded by mystery: a dead loon on the beach isn’t necessarily strange, but how it ended up more than 300 ft. from the ocean wasn’t mentioned in this headline.
FASHION AND STYLE
Celebrity Piping Plover “Dexter” is sporting the latest in endangered beach-nesting bird bling… color-coordinated bands!
(I think I made my boss’ day with this story plucked from the headline news!)
*ALL PHOTOS IN THIS POST WERE TAKEN DURING THE OFFICIAL CONDUCT OF MY JOB TO MONITOR AND PROTECT BEACH-NESTING BIRDS, or, like a local fisherman has taken to calling it “as the official birdwatcher here”.
Today’s sunset at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel
So I guess I finally have enough of my ducks in a row to tell you all about my plans for this summer…
I’m going home to NJ!
The perfect summer job landed in my lap… I’ll be working for NJ Fish and Wildlife to monitor and protect beach-nesting birds.
Please don’t anyone pinch me… I don’t want to wake up if this is a dream!
I set out early this morning with my bunny and my African violets and after 12+ hours in the car, we’re all feeling pretty bedraggled. I took the shortcut across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to spend the night on the Delmarva Peninsula and will meet the ferry to Cape May in the morning. It’s beautiful here (and there’s still “sweet tea” available!) and I was treated to Brown Pelicans and frolicking dolphins this evening when I stopped at the scenic overlook on the bridge to stretch my legs. Plus, I can smell the sea again… But it’s cold! I started the day with the AC running in the car and ended it with the heat blasting.
Some Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers are already on eggs… I’m hoping to arrive on the beach with the Least Terns. I’m so excited! I can’t wait to get started and share this adventure with you…
Heggie’s Rock Preserve is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and is yet another example of a granite outcrop community, much like Arabia Mountain. I was curious to see it because it’s said to be the most pristine of Georgia’s flat rock outcrops.
So last Saturday, I went along on a special guided tour meant for “serious” photographers. I was concerned with not being “serious” enough, of course, but no one checked my credentials.
Granite outcrops are difficult places for the plants that try to make a life there. The temperatures are extreme and there’s not much soil. In fact, the plants arrange themselves into zones according to soil depth. The hot, dry conditions foster plant life that dramatically differs from that of the surrounding forest… many are perennials that grow very slowly; others are winter annuals that survive the desert-like summer months as seeds.
Many of the winter annuals have adaptations like whitish hairs to reflect sunlight and smallish leaves that reduce surface-area water loss; others, like the Elf’s Orpine (pictured here and above) are succulents that store water in swollen leaves and stems.
This environment was a first for many in our small group of “serious” photographers; this lady earned innumerable points in my book for forgoing the tripod and getting down on her belly in the dirt to make her photos!
Mosses and lichen dry out and darken (or turn silver like this one!) but immediately turn green with moisture. We tested this out with our water bottles; the response was almost immediate.
Unfortunately, there was no “serious” plant person in our group to tell me the name of this one.
There’s something in the experience of an outcrop that’s very difficult to convey in a photograph; a wide-angle view mutes the beauty somehow, but the color contrasts feel lost without the context of the whole expanse. I dunno… I love the contrasts of texture and color in this pic. That’s enough, I guess!
Occasionally, there’s a brighter view where the soil is deep enough to support it. Just ahead of the woody shrubs, the yellow blooms are Rabbit’s Ear, I think.
The Elf’s Orpine is the star of the show, of course. The environment here is very, very dry but the blooming things still manage to arrange themselves artfully among the lichen-covered rocks.
I’d really like to know what this stuff is… any guesses?
Another artful arrangement… especially interesting because you can “see” the soil depth based on the plants that are growing… the unnamed plant in the deepest part of the solution pool, leading to the Elf’s Orpine blooming in the dry sand on the right, and the lichen covering the bare granite.
Pretty with pinecones.
I love the weird moonscape of granite outcrops here in GA; I love how stark they are and I especially love how surprising the color and beauty can be when you get down on your belly to find it. I love The Nature Conservancy for putting this place behind a fence to protect it for all of us “serious” folks to enjoy.
Heggie’s Rock is open to the public on a limited basis… check here.
Please go; it’s beautiful!
Just me rambling about birds, books, bunnies, or whatever!