Audubon Florida News

Topic: Coastal Conservation



Shorebird Research Spring Update: American Oystercatchers in the Spotlight

posted on April 28, 2015 in Coastal Conservation

Audubon_AMOY_Friel_banding_1Spring has arrived on Florida beaches with warmer temperatures and shorebirds beginning their yearly nesting cycle. The Audubon/Florida Park Service partnership team is conducting weekly nest surveys at three state parks in the Florida panhandle: St. Joseph Peninsula, St. George Island and Bald Point State Parks. These parks include some of the last remaining undeveloped barrier islands and coastal beaches which are also critical for beach-nesting shorebirds. The five main species monitored at these parks include: Snowy Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns, American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers,

Following recent banding events, we are highlighting the American Oystercatchers breeding at these three state parks. The banding efforts are part of a long-term research program, in collaboration with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the American Oystercatcher Working Group, assessing nest success and reproductive performance, survival and movement patterns.

But first, what is an American Oystercatcher? It is a large “crow-sized” shorebird with black and white plumage, pink fleshy legs, a bright reddish-orange bill and bold yellow eyes. As their name implies, oystercatchers are adept at prying open oyster shells to feed. They spend the majority of their time foraging and roosting around oyster bars. Right now, those oyster bars are the battling grounds for adult oystercatchers attempting to find the best mates, the best nesting locations and optimal foraging hotspots. Oystercatchers are frequently spotted on oyster bars across from the boat launch at St. George Island State Park near Goose Island, especially during low tide. To see the birds, binoculars or a spotting scope are recommended as they allow observation without scaring the birds away. American Oystercatchers are sensitive to human disturbance since they view us as potential predators and a respectful distance should always be maintained.

Audubon_AMOY_Friel_banding_2At the beginning of the breeding season, oystercatchers scratch shallow depressions in sand or shells to make pre-nesting scrapes before choosing the best one for their nest. Once eggs are laid, they are incubated for 30 days until hatching, and the parents care for the semi-dependent chick for another 30 days until the chicks are flight capable. These are two critical months the birds have to avoid predators and disturbances, human activities and storms that threaten their survival. Following fledging, juvenile oystercatchers must survive an additional two years until they are capable of breeding.  Most oystercatchers do not reproduce until they are at least 3 years old.  However, it is a tough life and few nests survive to hatch, few chicks survive to fledging and few survive to reproduce as part of the adult population.

Pre-nesting scrapes have already been observed this spring during our weekly surveys. Once the scrapes are found, we mark the area with temporary posts and signs to inform the public that birds are using the area for breeding. Posting is a way to protect nesting birds from human disturbances that can cause these threatened species to abandon their nests or lead to indirect predation by opportunistic predators such as laughing gulls. By preventing human intrusion, we hope to increase the odds that nests will survive to hatch, and more chicks will fledge. We recently added new interpretive signs to educate park visitors of beach-nesting shorebird areas and hope this effort will contribute to a reduction in human disturbance.

Along with conducting breeding surveys and protecting breeding habitat, we have the unique opportunity to band some of the birds. Why do we band individual American Oystercatchers? Currently in Florida, their population numbers are low and they are considered state threatened. By banding oystercatchers, we have the opportunity to monitor the movements of individual birds within the nesting territory and to their wintering grounds—which can be in a different part of the state, country or even continent! Banded individuals can help us monitor how long oystercatchers survive at the state parks and if they move to a different nesting territory and or continue to use the same location year after year. Over time, as we monitor nests and breeding adults, we have the chance to observe and document the field-readable codes uniquely identified to each individual. Throughout the course of the breeding season, resighting banded individuals will help us identify each territory as well as individual nesting success and in turn dictate the overall productivity and health of the population.

Audubon_AMOY_Friel_decoyTrapping oystercatchers requires reading behavioral cues and plenty of patience. Using our oystercatcher decoy “Woody” and an audio playback call causes a pair of territorial oystercatchers to react to and try to chase off the intruder from their territory. This behavior provides an opportunity to catch individuals.

We banding Oystercatchers by placing red bands with vertical white numbering on each upper leg and a USFWS metal band applied to the lower right leg. We also collect of the bird’s physical characteristics and then they are released to reunite with their mate.

Already, Red 72 has been re-sighted foraging on the opposite side of Goose Island and it appears that American Oystercatchers are very localized when foraging. After banding Red 73, a scrape was found during a survey near the original banding location. We will continue to monitor these birds for the rest of the year, and hopefully, for the rest of their lives.

More information on resighting American Oystercatchers and banding schemes that are used by different states can be found at the amoywg.org. More information on American Oystercatchers populations throughout their range can be found by clicking here.

Beach-Nesting Bird Season Has Begun

posted on in Coastal Conservation

Snowy Plover and Newborn Chick by Jim UrbachBeach-Nesting Bird season has officially begun! This is when life really starts gets exciting on our beaches and coastal areas!

Reports from the Panhandle on the first-of-season Snowy Plover nests are coming in.  Phipps Preserve had a first full nest of 3 eggs on March 13 and Dog Island had its first egg on the 11. Reports of nest activity have come in from St. George Island State Park and Navarre Beach.

The Snowy Plovers have been pairing up, selecting mates and making scrapes, which is their pre-nesting breeding behavior, since early February. The American Oystercatchers have also been pairing up and making scrapes. Their nests will be active any time now. On paper, the official season is Mid-February thru August, but birds don’t read! So we all adjust accordingly if needed.

Over the Winter:

Red Knot in Northeast Florida by Pat LearyWhile bitter sweet, a congratulations is in order to USFWS for declaring the Rufa Red Knot as a threatened species under the ESA. Keep this link handy as we’ll be updating it throughout the season with additional news. You can also read about the efforts of Panhandle Rooftop Coordinator Michele Landis and her volunteers and staff, making nesting safer for rooftop nesting birds throughout the panhandle.

We’ve conducted workshops and reached out to law enforcement, sea turtle and beach mice professionals, state park personnel, and lifeguards – all professionals who work on our beaches.  Our goal is to help educate on behalf of beach-nesting birds and share ideas on how to help these species that are in trouble. We’ve also been providing educational walks, articles, new species identification signs and public speaking engagements in communities across the panhandle. Finally, the winter has provided us the opportunity to focus on non-breeding bird surveys as well as some habitat restoration and enhancement.

Staff, partners and volunteers have been busy getting sites posted under FWC guidelines and it’s looking good. We all started our weekly breeding surveys at sites across the Panhandle and we report our data into the Florida Shorebird Alliance Database. www.Flshorebirdalliance.org   This FWC link is a good resource for bird stewards and offers lots of information on beach-nesting birds.

Upcoming:

We’ll soon need Bird Steward volunteers at nesting areas from Pensacola to Bald Point SP! On beaches and rooftops. This is your time to see those cute little birds, have an excuse to get to the beach, conduct citizen science and provide a critical component in the coastal bird management plans.  Your efforts often help determine the success of our breeding birds. Without this direct protection and educational outreach to beachgoers, nesting sites will often fail. This is especially true on summer weekends and holidays. If you are new and wish to volunteer, contact FLConservation@audubon.org.

Coastal bird walks for shorebird migration and beach-nesting birds will also be conducted by Audubon staff. Contact: BSamuelsen@audubon.org if you are interested.

Florida’s State Parks Are Critical for Piping Plovers

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. This continues a blog series in which they share their experiences and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

TGreat Lakes Piping Plover overwintering at Little Talbot Island State Parkhe critical role of high quality habitat protected within Florida’s coastal parks and preserves was demonstrated recently by two recent, cross-state resightings of the same banded Piping Plover. On March 23, during a routine beach survey at Little Talbot Island State Park in Duval County, I detected a flagged plover in alternate plumage roosting with several other birds. Because none of the regional winter-resident plovers were as advanced in their molt, it had to be a migrant heading back to its northern breeding grounds. Careful study through a spotting scope offered partial views of the gray flag’s code, but positive identification was impossible. And then the birds flushed and vanished in the gloomy conditions.

BaldPointObserving other birds flying south with the wind, I elected to return to the park’s south inlet shore. Approaching the area, I found a large concentration of mixed shorebird species including a few piping plovers and the “lost migrant”.  Perhaps due to the harsh conditions and presence of migrating merlins, all the birds were nervous, rushing about the beach and taking flight repeatedly. As I carefully approached the birds, they flushed yet again with most landing on the opposite side of a shallow beach overwash but I soon detected my quarry running through the milling birds toward the distant inlet shore.

I removed socks and boots and waded through the chilly waters. Fortunately, the mass of birds ultimately settled down and I was able to approach the plovers to once again study the flag code. Some time passed before I was certain of reading the bird’s plastic leg marker correctly: a gray flag on the upper right leg bearing the code “E1”. At one point the migrant rested next to another banded plover carrying a black plastic flag with the code “J5” denoting it as a Maritime Canada plover that spent the winter locally.

Upon returning home, images were processed and a report was submitted to Cherri Gratto-Trevor in far distant Canadian Maritime Piping Plover with gray flagSaskatchewan, Canada. Cherri is a long time plover associate and the current director for piping plover banding efforts across Maritime Canada. As is her practice, Cherri quickly responded and informed me that the migrant was originally banded on May 29, 2014 at Crow Neck Beach in southern Nova Scotia. This bird spent the winter on Three Rooker Island, part of Anclote Key Preserve State Park in Pinellas County. Audubon Florida’s Marianne Korosy recorded the plover there on February 6th during Florida’s statewide mid-winter shorebird survey and it was last recorded there on March 9th.

A high percentage of migrant and wintering piping plovers are annually recorded in Florida’s state park and preserve beaches every season. Two Canadian Maritime plovers wintered in Little Talbot Island State Park and several others were recorded there during fall migration. Likewise, many banded plovers were recorded as migrants and winter residents in the Gulf Coast state parks – on Three Rooker Island and adjoining Anclote Key. Several other maritime plovers wintered in Cayo Costa State Park in southwest Florida. On both Florida coasts, banded plovers from the Great Lakes and Great Plains populations have been recorded frequently in passage or winter on state park beaches.

Huguenot Memorial Park: the bird protection area keeps flightless chicks from being harmed by vehiclesWith so much of Florida’s coastlines heavily developed and impacted by burgeoning numbers of residents and tourists alike, our undeveloped coastal parks will only increase in value to Piping Plovers and other shorebirds as time passes. We must be vigilant to increased pressures to expand development and carrying capacities in our parks if we hope to maintain their natural integrity and critical functions for native and migratory wildlife for decades to come.

Extra Protection for Rooftop Least Terns

posted on February 13, 2015 in Coastal Conservation,Wildlife

Every spring, Least Terns return from the wintering grounds in South America to breed and raise their young on the flat, open beaches along Florida’s coasts. These threatened seabirds prefer to nest on beaches, but sometimes rely on buildings with gravel rooftops in developed areas. When natural beach habitat is unavailable or experiences too much disturbance to successfully raise chicks, the flat, gravel rooftops are the next best thing! Because these birds normally lay their eggs directly in scrapes in the sand, gravel rooftops provide a similar, but artificial, nesting habitat.

Gravel rooftops have provided a safe place for Least Terns, and other seabirds, to raise their young without human disturbance or predation by cats, coyotes, raccoons, and other nest predators. Although their overall nesting success on rooftops is higher, Least Tern chicks do struggle to stay ON the rooftop. Chicks can be flushed off the rooftop as a result of disturbance or bad weather. Those that survive the fall can easily dehydrate on the ground, get stepped on or run over, or eaten by predators.

One of the largest rooftop nesting sites in Northwest Florida is The Chateau Motel in Panama City Beach. This business has been working with Audubon Florida to protect their rooftop colony of Least Terns and return fallen chicks to the rooftop. In 2014, their staff safely returned over 50 Least Tern chicks! In addition to rescuing these stranded baby birds, the owners of this hotel provide guests with car wash tokens to thank them for understanding the mess that comes with staying beneath a colony of Least Terns.

On Monday, February 9, the Chateau Motel in Panama City Beach, FL became a much safer nest site for Least Terns. Staff from Audubon Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Gulf Coast Tree Specialists and a group of brave volunteers installed “chick fencing” on the Motel’s rooftop. The day began in the parking lot of the Motel with the crew preparing the bricks with attachment points for the fencing.

roofchick_groupMike Wright used his bucket truck to lift the ton of bricks, along with anyone without a fear of heights, onto the rooftop to construct the fence. Thanks to Amy Raybuck, Justin Davis, Becca Hatchell, Christopher Nielens, Melissa Alverson, Bob Gilmore, Candis Harbison and Rebecca Metzger for all of your help. Without you this project would have taken days.

If you drive past the Chateau Motel this summer and see Least Terns flying overhead, be assured their chicks will be safe from falling off the roof.

Join Audubon for the 2015 Statewide Mid-Winter Shorebird Survey

Red Knots in flightThe annual mid-winter survey period is right around the corner – February 6 -12, 2015.

Team leaders are organizing volunteer survey crew members to walk miles of Florida’s beautiful coastline during this 7-day period, tallying numbers of shorebird and seabird species. If you can readily identify these species individually and in flocks of 50 or more birds, WE NEED YOU! 

Teams will be counting PipingSnowyWilson’s, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied Plovers, American Oystercatchers, a multitude of sandpiper species including Red Knots, several species of terns and gulls, Black Skimmers, and others. The data is reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as to state and local park managers. This is an annual survey that could not be accomplished at a statewide scale without the help of citizen scientists. Team leaders will enter the data in a Google spreadsheet so that anyone interested can see what other teams found across the state.

David Macri. Winter birds with BLSK in flight. Matanzas.120108_staug_DMM0216

No experience is necessary to join an experienced team in your area that will survey beaches accessible from the mainland. Most teams will walk a minimum of 1-2 miles. Come on out and join other citizen scientists for Florida’s one-time annual winter shorebird survey!

For information on how you can get involved with surveys in:

Bittersweet Victory for the Rufa Red Knot

posted on December 17, 2014 in Birds in the News,Coastal Conservation,Wildlife

REKN in flightThe Rufa Red Knot is a small shorebird, roughly the size of a robin, with a giant’s story. It is called a “perpetual summer” species because it travels the globe to keep up with warm weather. This bird spends its breeding months in the Canadian arctic and moves south to the southern tip of South America during non-breeding months. Essentially, a 7,000-9,000 mile journey twice a year, which it travels in roughly 10-14 days!

During its journey, it makes stops along the eastern seaboard to forage on horseshoe crab larvae, clams and other invertebrate species. These stops are perfectly timed with the explosion of invertebrate egg and larvae deposits in order for the bird to gain enough energy to make the long migration. If the timing isn’t right or the weather turns bad or the habitat has become altered, these birds can suffer tremendous losses to their population.

Between 2002 and 2008, Delaware Bay and Tierra Del Fuego reported a dramatic 75% reduction in Rufa Red Knot bird counts as compared to counts from the 1980’s. In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognized this decline and designated the Rufa Red Knot as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, the USFWS declared the Rufa Red Knot as a Threatened species on the ESA. This is good news in that greater protections can be afforded to red knot nesting and wintering habitat throughout its US range. However, the fact that this action had to occur in order to protect this species demonstrates the fragile environmental balance this species needs in order to survive.

REKNFO[MX1]HMPnorthinletshore50514_compressed

This species needs our attention, support, and protection in order for long-term health and well-being. There are various threats these birds face during migration, some natural and some man-made. Climate change will threaten forage food and cause shoreline erosion on critical resting and foraging areas. Unregulated horseshoe crab harvesting in the northeast can cause reduction in their primary migratory food source. Increased nutrients in our land-to-ocean rivers can cause red tides and toxicity of forage food. Incompatible recreational uses on our beaches such as beach driving, dogs off leash and kite-surfing too close to resting birds create disturbance that prevent the birds from putting on the necessary weight to complete their journey.

As new rules and regulations may be proposed due to the recent Threatened status of the Rufa Red Knot, it is important that we support those actions that will protect resting and migratory habitat and forage for this species.

Audubon Florida will keep you informed as local protections begin to form, but we need you to join us in supporting the unique and magnificent Rufa Red Knot. Sign up to receive the Audubon Advocate eNewsletter to stay informed: fl.audubon.org/signup

This Season’s Nature Coast Surveys Resume with a Stink!

posted on October 29, 2014 in Citizen Science,Coastal Conservation

Banded Piping Plover resighted in Cedar Key.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. This is the eighth blog in which they share their experiences and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

Our first seasonal surveys on the Nature Coast brought a rude and troubling surprise when we visited sites in the Horseshoe Beach area the first week of October. Departing the boat ramp, all appeared normal as we initially ran south to an oyster bar in the open gulf to scan flocks arriving to roost during the high tide period. Though many birds concentrated there, we also observed large numbers roosting on distant bars and, as the tide swelled, those birds flew north to the traditional jetty roost. Given the predicted height of the flood tide, we knew that all birds would eventually shift to the jetty rocks thus we too set off for the distant structure.

Conditions were pleasant as we raced over the shallow gulf waters passing frolicking porpoise, but as we drew near the rocks a pungent smell was evident and, upon landing, we noted numerous fish carcasses rotting in the bright sun. We had never previously encountered such an event on the gulf and speculated on its cause. Later, while scanning the roosting birds from our drifting vessel, we noted an enormous carcass stranded in the jumble of limerock . At distance, the bloated body with projecting pectoral fins resembled a manatee, but closer inspection revealed it to be a Goliath Grouper. This specimen deepened the mystery, for why would a deep water species wash up so close to shore?

Goliath Grouper carcass washed ashore due to red tide in Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to our departure from the jetty and, in a repetition of last season’s first survey, a Peregrine Falcon strafed through the panicked mass of birds but quickly vanished through a cloud of “avian confetti” spread across the sky. As we drove out of the tiny hamlet we stopped at a tackle store to seek more insight into the fish kill and learned that it was associated with a red tide impacting the entire region but the details were sketchy. The full extent of the event would not be known until we purchased a regional paper and learned that it covered multiple counties on the upper gulf and was impacting inshore and offshore waters – thus explaining the Goliath Grouper carcass. Upon our return home, an internet search provided even more insight and disclosed the event dated back to July and covered many thousands of square miles in the gulf.

Red tides are rare on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but even extreme northeast Florida was impacted several years past with large fish kills washing ashore and noxious vapors irritating beachgoers during periods of onshore winds. Fortunately, that event was restricted to offshore waters, but the impacts were felt on the beach for two weeks or more.

The following day, we surveyed sites on both sides of Cedar Key and found high numbers of American Oystercatchers and other shorebirds present but no signs of the red tide’s impact. For unknown reasons, the roosting flocks were unusually nervous, continuously flushing and shifting locations throughout the high tide period. Never previous had we been compelled to move and relocate so often during a day’s work. On some occasions soaring Bald Eagles explained the behavior, but at other times no clear threat was evident in the expansive gulf sky, but perhaps one clue was discovered later in the day when we visited one of the oyster reefs and the entire shorebird population exploded into the sky when yet another Peregrine Falcon materialized and casually passed amongst the panicked flocks before moving on.

Doris Leary surveying American Oystercatchers on an island near Cedar Key.

As often occurs on the gulf, the day began with sunny skies, unpredicted winds and choppy waters that later gave way to overcast skies and dead calm conditions enhancing the region’s often tranquil ambiance. By day’s end we had recorded dozens of American Oystercatcher band codes, two new Piping Plover flag codes, two Red Knot flag codes and two unusual Wilson’s Plovers banding codes. Subsequent to reporting the observation data, we learned that the two Piping Plovers were banded on adjoining alkali lakes near Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southwest South Dakota; one as an adult and the other a hatch year chick. Like so many other banded Red Knots recorded on the gulf coast, the two resighted near Cedar Key on this survey were of the population that winters in the southeast and passes through Delaware Bay each spring. One of the birds is now at least eleven years old.

The marked Wilson’s Plover is likely a bird resighted in the area last fall, but now wearing new bands replaced for the originals that faded. Such replacements are not unusual for many shorebirds if they are recaptured by researchers in subsequent seasons. For many years, young Piping Plovers returning to the Great Lakes have routinely been recaptured and fitted with new or different markers to identify them as breeding adults. Across their entire range, researchers have experienced problems with band fading and endeavor to recapture such birds to replace them with more durable color bands or coded flags. Because multi color bands are used to uniquely mark individual birds, faded bands defeat their function and make field identification highly problematic even with photographs. Recaptured Red Knots may receive new markers and/or tracking devices depending on location and circumstances.

Unfortunately, many Red Knots banded in Florida now carry flags with faded codes that are impossible to decipher under all but ideal conditions. Faded bands are now occurring amongst the growing research sample of marked Wilson’s Plover and are being replaced when possible per the aforementioned bird.

Given the unanticipated winds encountered during our first survey day, we abandoned our plans to travel south to survey the distant barge canal waters and returned to Cedar Key the following day. Not surprisingly, conditions were calmer and we ventured north to a nearby island. There we resighted one of the prior-recorded Piping Plovers and a growing concentration of American Oystercatchers and other species. From that vantage point, we could see another island lying low in the offshore waters and like many landforms along the Nature Coast, that island is now much reduced in dimension since our initial visits just eight years previous.

Formerly, the mangrove islet featured a raised sandy beach and projecting spit that hosted legions of American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and shorebirds. All that remains today is an ever-shrinking cluster of mangroves. Sandy shores and other loose-sediment structures throughout the Nature Coast are rapidly diminishing and may have long term impacts on shorebird populations, especially their roosting behavior.

American Oystercatchers amassing on an island near Cedar Key.

Due to the astronomical spring tides impacting the region we visited many traditional roost sites that were submerged on high tide and thus hosted no birds. When recreationist occupy alternative roost sites, the birds are compelled to shift wherever adequate habitat exist to rest during the flood tide periods. Most shorebirds seek low, open and exposed sites away from uplands to roost and such sites are highly sensitive to disturbance and vulnerable to usurpation by recreationists. We often find kayakers, canoeist and motorized vessels landed in such habitats. Protection and conservation of such sites may soon become a management imperative in many coastal areas.

Near the end of the field work, we visited another island just offshore of downtown Cedar Key. On one visit last winter, that sandy habitat supported many hundreds of small shorebirds and one Piping Plover, but on this visit is was entirely underwater and not a single bird was present.

Advocates Stand Up for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

posted on September 30, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,Land Conservation,Wildlife

topsailhill_map_arrowCongratulations to all the advocates for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park who packed a special hearing of the Walton County Commission last night!

Despite the fact that Topsail Hill’s main entrance never runs at capacity, commissioners were considering sending a request to the Florida Park Service to provide a new, unstaffed boardwalk access into one of the most undisturbed parts of this important preserve. This boardwalk would have benefited a small number of neighborhood residents at the expense of public tax dollars and imperiled natural resources including federally endangered Choctawhatchee beach mice and state Threatened Snowy Plovers.

In a tremendous show of civic engagement, Walton County advocates packed the chamber and defenders of Topsail outnumbered boardwalk advocates more than 2 to 1 in testimony. Ultimately, the board voted not to file the request with the Florida Park Service, especially citing the fact that the proposed use of Tourist Development dollars to create a boardwalk to benefit a limited number of residents was inappropriate.

Congratulations to the dedicated advocates of Walton County whose time and dedication produced this terrific result for Topsail. The high, windswept dunes, beach mice and shorebirds thank you!

You can view the commission hearing and advocates’ impassioned testimony online by clicking here.

Banded Caspian Tern Déjà Vu

posted on September 26, 2014 in Citizen Science,Coastal Conservation,Northeast Florida

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. This is the sixth blog in which they share their experiences and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

Closeup of band codeThe term “snowbird” is familiar to Floridians and understood to represent northern residents who annually shift south to escape winter’s harshest weather. But eons before humans adopted such behavior, countless generations of birds practiced a similar strategy flocking to Florida’s shores or passing through to more favorable winter digs in lower latitudes as the sun made its seasonal descent in the northern skies. Human snowbirds are readily identified by out-of-state license plates, but their avian counterparts are more difficult to distinguish from resident birds unless they carry unique markers that identify their point of origin.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of birds carry markers in a broad variety of shapes and colors, making it possible to report the coded information and gain insight into each bird’s migratory pathways and longevity, knowledge that contributes significantly to long-term research and conservation efforts. Some birds are resighted and reported in multiple years because they spend every winter in Florida on the same beach area, a phenomenon known as “winter site fidelity“. Transient migrants are less frequently recorded since they provide limited opportunity for detection during brief migratory stopovers in Florida.

Caspian Tern sighted in October 2010On October 2, 2010, while Doris and I were conducting a routine regional survey, we noted several Caspian terns roosting among a flock of mixed species on Big Bird Island in lower Nassau Sound. One of the birds was banded with a large, light blue band engraved with the code (AEJ).  Knowing the data was of value to the researchers who applied the markers, we reported the code to the Bird Banding Lab and later learned the bird had been banded as a young chick on Gull Island in Lake Ontario on 7/02/08.  Since that time, we have recorded and reported other, uniquely-banded Caspian Terns but have yet to resight any of the same birds in the same area until this week.

On September 23, during a typical seasonal Nor’easter, I visited the jetty roost in Ft. Clinch State Park and found a large aggregation of mixed larid species hunkered on the shore sheltering from the gusty winds and light drizzle. Amongst the flock were less than ten Caspian Terns, including a bird with a light blue band engraved with the code (AEJ). As I photographed the bird, I wracked my memory and wondered if it might be the same tern resighted four years previously just south of Amelia Island. After processing the photos and checking our image archives I was pleased to discover that indeed, it was the same bird recorded and reported in 2010. Déjà vu!Caspian Tern sighted September 2014.

Although Doris and I have recorded hundreds of uniquely marked birds of multiple species and some over many seasons and after thousands of miles of migration, this bird seemed special. We see relatively few Caspian terns in this region and most occur for a few weeks in early fall. Consequently, our opportunities to locate previously resighted terns are few, yet the annual journey of this bird crossed our pathway once again leaving us to marvel at the wonders of migration.

Keep Florida’s Shorelines Beautiful and Safe for All

posted on September 24, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,FL Coastal Islands Sanctuaries

Photo by Rusty ChinnisEach October, volunteer boat captains and their crews coordinated by Audubon’s Florida’s Coastal Island Sanctuaries, Tampa Bay Watch, and Sarasota Bay Watch visit bird nesting islands and foraging habitats in west central Florida’s estuaries, lakes, and rivers to remove fishing line and other trash that pose an entanglement threat to birds and other wildlife.

A Saturday in October with a high tide is chosen because this is the only time of the year when almost no birds are nesting on the bird colony sites in this region of Florida.  That means that volunteers can remove the deadly line, balloon ribbon, lures, and other fishing gear snagged in mangrove trees and saltmarsh habitats without endangering chicks or eggs in the nest or frightening fledgling birds.  The higher tides allow boat captains to safely approach islands surrounded by shallow water, seagrass and mudflats, and oysterbeds.

Fishing line is hard to spot, entangled in the mangroves or washed up on marsh and beach shorelines, but it is a clear hazard to wading birds.  Nesting pelicans and wading birds sometimes even deliberately collect it, mistaking it for the softer grass materials that they use to line their nests.  Once a leg or wing is entangled in the line, it becomes a remorseless killer.  A single long line stretching across a bird island can persist for years, entangling many birds.

Audubon and Tampa Bay Watch began the fishing line cleanup in 1993 after a sobering survey at Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of Tampa Bay, where staff found over 50 dead birds snared in line. Sarasota Bay Watch, a newly formed group, has been a fishing line cleanup partner with Audubon for six years.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists report that entanglement in fishing gear is the primary cause of mortality of Brown Pelicans, killing adults as well as young, inexperienced birds.  Of course, other birds and wildlife as dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and otters also fall prey to this insidious, invisible killer.

Photo by Mark RachalPre-registration ensures that captains and their crews have permission for this once-a-year event from landowners and managers to otherwise restricted bird nesting sites.  Audubon and the Bay Watch groups have coordinated this activity with park, refuge, and wildlife area managers and receive their full support and participation.

An important component of the fishing line cleanup has been the outreach to fishermen.  Newspaper and other media coverage have helped spread awareness of the need for fishermen to properly dispose of line and other fishing gear.

For Tampa Bay:

BOATERS: Tampa Bay Watch, in partnership with Audubon Florida, is recruiting shallow-draft volunteer boaters to clean Tampa Bay’s colonial bird nesting islands and shorelines on Saturday, September 27.  Contact Anne Dowling, 727.867.8166 or adowling@tampabaywatch.org or http://www.tampabaywatch.org

For Sarasota Bay:

Join the Sarasota Bay Watch Seventh Annual Monofilament Cleanup on Saturday October 4th at 8:30.  We meet at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, which generously hosts the event with lunch provided to volunteers.  To register, contact  http://sarasotabaywatch.org/.

 

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