Pat and Doris Leary are avid birdwatchers and citizen scientists from Fernandina Beach, FL, who volunteer their time and substantial skills to survey coastal waterbirds in Northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and Florida’s Big Bend. As they have done each winter since 2006, the Learys are conducting surveys in Florida’s Big Bend this year. Their skill at censusing wintering shorebirds—one of the most challenging groups of birds—resighting bands, and navigating this wild coastal region places them among Florida’s leading field experts on the habitat usage of shorebirds in North Florida. This is the second of several blogs in which they share their experiences and sightings, as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face. Enjoy:
On September 28 and 29, we returned to the Big Bend to conduct another series of shorebird surveys. Although the predicted tides were favorable, the gusty NE winds actually suppressed the flood tides by blowing the shallow Gulf waters away from land. Ordinarily we avoid such adverse conditions, but scheduling conflicts restricted our opportunities to travel to the Gulf during the migratory period.
Winds were predicted to decrease on the 29th, so we elected to survey more sheltered waters in Dixie County on the 28th. Upon our arrival, it was evident the tide was suppressed and only 35 oystercatchers occupied one traditional roost. After photographing a lone banded bird from our vessel, we next ran south in the bumpy Gulf to an alternate roost rake. Here too we found reduced numbers of birds, but we landed and collected six band codes amongst 52 birds. Sighting additional flocks roosting on low rakes throughout the area, we systematically approached and surveyed each for marked birds. At one point, a Peregrine appeared and coursed low over the trees of an adjoining island before harassing an eagle and disappearing from sight. Motoring to one exposed rake inside a creek mouth, we ran directly across an undetected oyster bed–a rude reminder of the inherent hazards of conducting Gulf surveys in unfavorable conditions.
Turning back toward our landing, we surveyed a few more rakes, recorded several more band codes, tallied a variety of shorebird species and sighted our first migrant Northern Harrier. With the tide still high, we decided to haul out and drive south to search for more oystercatchers. Arriving there, we immediately noted flocks roosting on rakes and bars in Shired Creek’s mouth. Amongst 54 birds, we recorded 8 band codes. Upon our return inland we noted an abundance of wildflowers blooming in the roadside ditches that attracted numerous butterflies.
Early Sunday morning, we drove to Cedar Key and found the winds marginally reduced, but we successfully motored through the open waters east of town to access the traditional roost sites. 150 oystercatchers were massed with smaller numbers of Marbled Godwit and Willet near Cedar Point. With the wind again suppressing the tide, we were able to land on a flooded rake east of the massed bird placing the sun behind us. Such a vantage point is highly advantageous to detect and read band codes in harsh low light. Shortly after setting up, we immediately detected a bird with a projecting antennae and confirmed it to be Oreo or DG[CF6], a bird satellite tagged by Audubon North Carolina in Wrightsville Beach, NC! After scanning the flock and collecting more codes, we noted additional flocks on low rakes to our east. As at Horseshoe Beach the day before, we motored from one flock to another, landing in shallow water adjoining each roost to scan and record band codes. Several eagles were active on Corrigan Reef’s outermost rakes, so there was no need to search there as oystercatchers habitually avoid eagles.
The day’s flood tide was at least one foot below its predicted height; consequently oystercatcher flocks were broadly dispersed across the inshore shallows. The largest of these was on a narrow rake east of Live Oak Key, but we were able to land on a flooded section of the same rake and scan for bands. Despite our close proximity, the mass of crowded birds limited our view into the flock and we likely missed some bands. While engaged with this flock, we noted nearby flocks flushing and flying toward Cedar Pt. Motoring through the maze of bars and submerged rakes we struck bottom several times attempting to return to the marked channel.
Approaching Corrigan’s Reef, we noted more oystercatchers roosting amongst American Avocet, Black Skimmer and smaller shorebirds. As before, we landed in shallow water, set up near the birds and collected more data before returning to Cedar Point. Arriving there we found more birds present, but on this occasion, we shifted to the reverse side of the rake due to screening vegetation. While scanning the many oystercatchers, we noted two banded Wilson’s Plovers roosting on the far left side of the long rake. These were the first banded WIPL we had encountered on the Gulf Coast.
With the tide now ebbing and the wind remaining brisk, we returned to the ramp and abandoned our plans to motor around to the city’s west side to survey flocks favoring that area. (Our route to and from the west side crosses a broad, shallow, expanse of the gulf fully exposed to the NE winds)
Despite the abbreviated survey and unfavorable conditions, we collected 49 band codes, photographed and documented the arrival of Oreo and collected two Wilson’s plover band codes. Additional oystercatchers will continue to arrive and we will return to document and monitor the population through the winter.