Tag Archives: Birds

Welcome Back — Where Have You Been?

This time of year, piping plovers are returning to beaches up and down the East Coast, preparing to lay eggs and raise chicks in their summer homes. But where have these shorebirds been all winter? Biologists have wondered this for years, and they’re gradually gathering answers.

Piping plovers nest on beaches throughout the northeastern U.S. and Atlantic Canada. Credit: Kaiti Titherington/USFWS

Piping plovers are found only in North America, with a total of about 8,000 birds. There are three breeding populations, each listed as either threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Known range of piping plovers, 2004. Credit: USFWS

Many of the birds that nest in the northern U.S. and Canada spend winters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southern U.S. and in Mexico and the Caribbean. They spread out across a large area that has not been as well surveyed as their breeding grounds, so new wintering areas are still being found. Scientists discovered in 2011 that about 1,000 birds, or roughly one-third of the Atlantic Coast population, winters in the Bahamas.

That still leaves a lot unaccounted for in the colder months. Surely there are other spots in the Caribbean where piping plovers spend half their lives.

Typical piping plover habitat. Credit: Craig Watson/USFWS

In 2016, a team of scientists from the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources counted wintering piping plovers on Turks and Caicos during the International Plover Census. It was the first organized shorebird survey done on the chain of 40 islands southeast of the Bahamas. They were pleased to find 96 plovers.

Location of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Credit: Google Earth

The same group, bolstered by staff from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Turks & Caicos National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (United Kingdom) and SWA Environmental, fanned out to cover more areas this winter and found 174 piping plovers, an increase of 78 over last year.

Biologists search for plovers from a distance. Credit: Craig Watson/USFWS

Although the numbers may not sound impressive, they are significant. They show that the Turks and Caicos Islands are a major wintering area for piping plovers. Eighty-eight of the birds were found in one place, which could qualify the site for listing as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

According to Caleb Spiegel, a biologist with the Service and member of the survey team, “It goes to show that multiple years of surveys are critical to understanding populations, since there may be variation in how sites are used each year.”

A flock of shorebirds surveyed in the Turks and Caicos. Credit: Craig Watson/USFWS

Ten of the piping plovers that were spotted in Turks and Caicos this year sported leg bands that identified them as mature birds that were banded as chicks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Atlantic Canada. Proof positive that birds we in the Northeast consider “ours” spend half the year in Turks and Caicos.

International efforts, like the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, connect science, like that gathered through this survey, with conservation. The Service hopes to work with partners to spread the word about the sites in Turks and Caicos where piping plovers were found and encourage their protection.

“We can use the example of the Bahamas,” noted Spiegel. “With extensive efforts by the Bahamian Government, the National Audubon Society, the Service, and others, those sites were named Important Bird Areas, and one was later protected as a National Park.”

Two piping plovers in pale winter plumage. During breeding season, they have dark neck rings and brow bands. Credit: Craig Watson/USFWS

In addition to piping plovers, biologists discovered about 400 red knots, another threatened shorebird, in 2017. Historically, there have been few sightings of this bird in Turks and Caicos, and none were seen in the 2016 survey. The birds were found on a sand bar that was not surveyed the previous year.

As migratory birds, piping plovers and red knots need both a home and a home-away-from-home. The discovery of new wintering sites in the Turks and Caicos Islands is big news for these little birds and the people who support them.

Click here to learn more about the 2017 Piping Plover Survey in Turks and Caicos.

To learn more about piping plovers, visit the following links: The Search Is on for Piping Plovers blog and our Piping Plover webpage!

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Another Successful Blending of Birds and Bagels

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Birds and…bagels? This annual opportunity, hosted by Dr. Susan Adamowicz, allows seasonal staff a chance to see wildlife — mostly birds — in a setting we don’t normally explore. And besides, there’s free breakfast. Now in its 6th year, this tradition is a delight to newcomers and returning birders alike.

The day was bright and warm, an ideal early-summer opportunity for heading out at first light and endeavoring to make a perfect record of the morning. Seven of us: four seasonal staff members, two refuge volunteers and Susan, all started from her home, surrounded by towering white pines and red oak trees, and walked down the road to a nearby utility right-of-way.  New powerline structures created a long corridor through the woods, bordered by tall trees, but with a covering of dense shrubs in the understory.  The sky was clear and open, the sun burning away clouds and providing us an unrestricted view of a bright sky. Perfect for bird spotting. Refuge volunteers Sue Keefer and Steve Norris acted as our expert bird guides, eagerly sharing their seemingly-infinite knowledge of the avian community.

Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

We ambled slowly down the powerlines, our progress constantly distracted by distant calls or flashing glimpses of movement in the shrubs.  Searching for warblers in dense shrubs is a Herculean task. But careful listening was well-rewarded: a red-eyed vireo singing in the distance, American restarts chipping to each other, common yellowthroats defending their nests, chestnut-sided warbler fledglings practicing their songs. We often had to pause and listen, the first call catching our attention and the second or third helping us to identify the bird. But sharp eyesight gave us rewards too: Steve spotted an indigo bunting perched high on the wires, Kim caught a glimpse of a blue-headed vireo darting from a bush, Ben found a pine warbler flitting in the canopy of pines, and Sue Keefer found us a black-billed cuckoo sitting silently in the thick canopy of an oak, forcing us to play hide-and-seek to identify him. There was too much to see. As focused as we were on birds, we still managed to spot several mammals including dashing chipmunks and a loping gray fox.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

As with most forays into nature, time got away from us and we had to rush back to Susan’s house for coffee and bagels. While eating, we decompressed and reviewed our species list, excitedly recounting our favorite finds.

38 species in fewer than 2 hours: a new record for our Birds and Bagels trip! Many species from previous years (such as eastern towhees, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings) made appearances along with new visitors like the black-billed cuckoo and wild turkey. For many in our group (myself included) it was a marvelous snapshot of summer birding in Southern Maine.

See the entire bird list from our trip on eBird: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30369918

Seasonal staff enjoying the birds. From left: Refuge volunteer Steve Norris, Salt Marsh Intern Bridget Chalifour, Outreach Intern Kim Snyder, Salt Marsh Intern Drew Collins, Outreach Intern Ben Bristol. Photo by Susan Adamowicz/USFWS

Seasonal staff enjoying the birds. From left: Refuge volunteer Steve Norris, Salt Marsh Intern Bridget Chalifour, Outreach Intern Kim Snyder, Salt Marsh Intern Drew Collins, Outreach Intern Ben Bristol. Photo by Susan Adamowicz/USFWS

Backyard Birding: Get to Know the Remarkable, Crepuscular American Woodcock

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

The American woodcock is one of the first migratory birds to return north for the season, and the male’s spectacular mating flight is worth a glimpse – but to see it, you need to adopt some of this bird’s more crepuscular habits!

Ever since I first heard the word ‘crepuscular,’ it has been a favorite of mine. It means ‘active at dawn and dusk’ and is often used to describe wildlife activity. Many mammals are crepuscular, and certainly any human outside at these times of day will attest to how magic dawn and dusk are.

The American woodcock is a largely crepuscular, ground-dwelling bird in the shorebird family. Few would doubt that is strange looking, with a long beak, big eyes and a large head. But it is also beautiful in its own right, much as pelicans and toucans are beautiful.

Am Woodcock on Nest

American Woodcock on a nest (Credit: Carlos Guindon/USFWS Contractor)

Strange in More Ways Than One

Like many of its shorebird relatives, the woodcock has a long flexible bill for feeding. It consumes a variety of invertebrates, but especially earthworms. Its large eyes are uniquely positioned on its large head, allowing the woodcock to see in most directions at once, probably very useful for detecting danger while its head is down feeding.

I have seen a woodcock during daylight hours, and it slowly retreated away from me, but with its amazing head and eye configuration, it was watching me every step of the way.

While most of its relatives spend their time at the edges of water bodies, the woodcock lives in and around moist vegetation, especially thickets and regenerating forests adjacent to open areas.

In summer it is found over most of eastern North America, but in fall the northern populations migrate south, and in winter the species is largely found in the southeastern U.S. In spring, woodcock are among the earliest migrants to return to and breed in the northern parts of their range.

While American woodcock are generally quite cryptic, the display flight that the males perform at dusk in spring brings the species into prominence. A male will launch into flight over an open area – circling, fluttering and zig-zagging high in the air, all while his outer wing feathers produce a loud twittering sound.Unfortunately, woodcock populations have declined by about half over the last four decades. The growth of thickets and young forest into mature forest is believed to be the primary reason for their decline. While mature forest is great habitat for many wildlife species, American woodcock and numerous other types of wildlife, can’t live in mature forest. Over the last century there has been a trend toward less disturbance (natural and intentional) of forests, which has resulted in reduced habitat for woodcock and some other declining fauna such as golden-winged warbler and New England cottontail.

young forest

A patch of young forest and shrubbery (Credit: USFWS)

Fortunately there is growing recognition of the need for more young forest in our landscapes. The Young Forest Project promotes thoughtful forest disturbance to create regenerating habitat, and several organizations specifically advocate for American woodcock habitat, such as through The American Woodcock Conservation Plan.

So, there is an introduction to our crepuscular, forest-dwelling ‘shorebird,’ with twittering wing feathers. Now is the season when males are displaying. May they grace moist young forest near you.