17 August 2017

Piping Plovers, a rare white morph Reddish Egret, Least Bittern juveniles, and yellow-flowered water-lily

Wed 16 Aug 2017

Early fall shorebird migration continues on Bulls Island over the last two waterfowl/shorebird surveys while many summer resident gulls, terns, and shorebirds remain. On the Wed 26 July 2017 survey the heavens opened up dumping 2.70 inches of rain on the island, most of it in about 45 minutes. Fortunate timing for me, I walked off of the North Beach with the leading edge of the rain and into the protected environs of a pickup truck. Then the rains, thunder, and lightening really came down hard and fast. Safe enough, I merely ate lunch and occasionally peaked at the shorebirds resolutely hunkered down in the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s Creek; having no where to go, they seemed simply to endure. After that deluge there was merely light rain on and off for the rest of the day. The Fri 11 Aug 2017 survey offered a more typical hot and humid weather pattern and was, thus, much less remarkable on that story line.

Summer resident species including Black-necked Stilt, Black Tern, Least Tern, and Least Bittern continue in high numbers. I was able to take a passable photograph of the first juvenile Least Bitterns that I recall having ever seen. Can you see two juveniles in the first photograph? There’s a hint at the end if you need help.

juvenile Least Bitterns

mature Least Bittern 

Other species of note included American Avocet (5, all already showing paler basic plumage), Marbled Godwit, Great Black-backed Gull, and Common Tern. Returning migrant species included both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers. 

On both surveys I tallied Piping Plovers (PIPL), at least two of which were banded. On the 26 July survey all four PIPL flew before I could read any bands, but on the 11 Aug survey I was able to read bands on two and have submitted a report back to the banders. Dr. Peter Paton (Dept. of Natural Resources Science, Univ. of Rhode Island) writes back that one PIPL (banded with a green flag bearing “T2K” code): “T2K is a male banded on 19 May 2017 at Napatree RI.” I bumped into Melissa Bimbi Chaplin on the North Beach while she was multitasking on nesting turtle patrol, seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) (there are North Beach dune plantings of this federally threatened species that she was checking on), and shorebirds. Melissa had been seeing these same banded PIPLs for about three weeks on Bulls, but we don’t yet know if Bulls is merely a migrant stop-over site or will become the main residence of these specific birds. 

Reddish Egrets (REEG) have also been back in their usual location at the oceanfront marsh at Jack’s. I tallied an immature juvenile REEG on 26 July but was really surprised by a rare white morph Reddish Egret on 11 Aug. This white egret first caught my eye because it was “dancing” for its food; I’ve seen other egrets and herons do fair imitations of the typical REEG “dance,” so I was thinking that this was just a Snowy Egret that had learned the dance from a Reddish Egret. When I finally got around to scoping this obvious bird out of hundreds of other birds at the same marsh, I immediately knew that it was neither a Snowy Egret (wrong leg color and bill color) nor an immature Little Blue Heron (again wrong leg color and bill color). A quick check of my field guide confirmed: Reddish Egret, white morph. 

Reddish Egret, white morph

Keith Bradley was doing a botanical survey on Bulls for the refuge and rode out and back with me on the 26 July survey. He, too, was fortunate to have a truck as a retreat from the day’s deluge. He was pleased to see the abundance of yellow-flowered water-lilies to be found in Lower Summerhouse Pond. However, rather than being the common and widely dispersed fragrant water-lily (or sweet water-lily, Nymphaea odorata, typically bearing white or, more rarely, pink flowers and seen in great abundance at Donnelley WMA, for example), these yellow-flowered water-lilies were an entirely different and far rarer species, Nymphaea mexicana. Restricted primarily to the immediate coast from N.C. down and around to Mississippi, this species is probably introduced. (Radford, Ahles, and Bell. 1968. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, UNC Press.) Bulls Island is always producing rarities it seems.

water-lily, Nymphaea mexicana

My eBird checklists for the two outings are available at:


Looking ahead at the tidal calendar suggests the following dates to consider for our next survey:

Thurs 24 Aug 2017 5.6 ft high tide forecast at 10:30 AM
Fri 25 Aug 2017 5.5 ft high tide forecast at 11:17 AM


Hint: Can’t find the second juvenile Least Bittern? Look just above and behind the first, out-in-the-open bird for the head and neck of a second in profile facing right.

14 July 2017

A hot day on the island for fall migration to begin

Fri 14 July 2017

And just like that summer is over and fall begins. On my last posting I recounted the arrival of summer with the full-on summertime green in the Spartina alterniflora saltmarsh grasses. On Wednesday's waterfowl/shorebird survey I saw early fall Western Sandpiper migrants. Last year I reported Western Sandpipers (50) and a banded Piping Plover from the 8 July 2016 survey, so there may be a developing consistency of early migration dates.

Rob Dillon and Madison Stelljes joined me for Wednesday's waterfowl/shorebird survey. Rob is a freshwater malacologist so enjoyed wading into several of the impoundments looking for freshwater snails. Rob "looks down" for snails and says that I "look up" for birds; he's fond of classifying things whether species or behavior. Nonetheless he did point out, without using binoculars, the one Marbled Godwit that we found on the day and numerous other birds. Rob also has recently posted on his blog (http://fwgna.blogspot.com/) a fascinating account of numerous freshwater snails found among the breast feathers of an Indigo Bunting; scroll down to the Friday 26 May 2017 posting to read about this unexpected snail/bird connection. Madison joined me on the 13 June 2017 survey and apparently enjoyed it enough that she came back for more. Her birding skills have improved greatly over the past month.  My thanks to both for their help with the survey.
Beyond the early Western Sandpiper migrants we also tallied other birds of interest including high counts of Black Terns, Gull-billed Terns, and Spotted Sandpipers as well as Black Scoter, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a juvenile Reddish Egret, and a Common Nighthawk. We had many fewer Least Terns than on recent surveys and no Mottled Ducks. Our eBird checklist for the island is at: https://ebird.org/ebird/iss/view/checklist/S38127403. We tallied 18 species on the boat ride, 55 species on the island, and 58 species on the day's outing.

We also had a few non-avian sightings including fox squirrels, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, butterflies, damselflies, deer flies, and one horse fly. The North Beach dune line continues to grow (the sea oats are growing gangbusters!), and the construction crew is installing new culvert pipes beneath the new dike.

It was a hot and humid day on the island, but the real heat came from a fire burning off of Alligator Alley close to Old Fort Road. Trisha Midgett, the volunteer coordinator for the Cape Romain NWR, was leading a group of orphaned boys around the island, smelled and saw smoke, and called me to track down the location of the fire. (Trisha and her group made their discovery just as they were leaving the island so had no time to locate it specifically.) In almost no time at all the maintenance crew, including the refuge manager, had bulldozed a fire line around the small fire (about the footprint of small house) and was preparing a tank of water to douse the flames and quench the embers. A lightening strike is presumed to have been the cause; fortunately the resulting fire was low, slow, and smoldering rather than fast and ravenous. Good recent rainfall also has kept the island rather moist, so that helped also.

Looking ahead at the tidal calendar suggests the following dates to consider for our next survey:

Tues 25 July 2017 5.3 ft high tide forecast at 10:06 AM
Wed 26 July 2017 5.3 ft high tide forecast at 10:59 AM
Thurs 27 July 2017 5.2 ft high tide forecast at 11:51 AM