18 May 2018

Overnight survey was a privilege producing a life list species, a trifecta...oh, and shorebirds

Fri 18 May 2018

Due to scheduling conflicts I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to conduct a waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls during the current high tides. Thanks to the suggestion from my wife (thanks Nan!) I requested permission to spend Tuesday night in the Dominick House to be on site for Wednesday’s earlier forecast high tide, i.e., earlier than typical for my ongoing survey efforts. It all worked so well that I’ll be making similar requests for overnights more often. 

I didn’t depart from Garris Landing until after 4:00 PM Tuesday after seeing the Coastal Expeditions ferry passengers disembark back at Garris Landing. The only thing hurrying me along for that boat ride out was seeing a heavy cloudburst a few miles south of my location, and I didn’t see that until I was about half-way to Bulls. Once safe and dry on the island I took an evening bird walk around the picnic grounds, out Beach Road and Lighthouse Road then back by Big Pond Road and Sheepshead Ridge Road. Somehow one specific bird high up in a tree caught my eye. I had never seen a Rose-breasted Grosbeak before but knew instantly that that was what I was looking at. Chalk up another life list species for me from Bulls!

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

I had planned to walk until dark so that I could listen for Chuck-will’s-widows (CWWIs) at and after sunset. Turned out that I had enough time after my walk to drive up to the main shorebird high tide roost, specifically the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s Creek, to see what was there. I had a half hour on station as the sun set and as the high tide peaked almost simultaneously. I tallied 17 species there including over 500 Red Knots. 

Driving back along Lighthouse Road in the dark I heard my first Chuck. Almost immediately after that the truck headlights picked up an unusual, at least to me, reflection from the roadway ahead, so I stopped. It was so brightly reflective in the dark, and at such a great distance, that I first thought it might be some forgotten artificial reflector as used along roadways to mark ditches and driveways. It had this weird orange to yellow-orange color and was right down on the road. Then it blinked at me, several times. I was able to drive much closer before flushing a Chuck-will’s-widow from the roadway. Then in about another hundred meters I saw another one just like the first. Very cool to see those eye reflections.

But I wasn’t finished with Chuck-will’s-widows. Wednesday morning in bright daylight as I walked off the North Beach I flushed a Chuck-will’s-widow from the roadway. It flew a very short distance, landed on the ground again, and started doing a little hooded wing flutter behavior. I ended up with killer spotting scope views and several digiscope pictures of a Chuck both on the ground and on a tree limb. My best view ever of a CWWI. I’ll call that a trifecta: heard calling (several times), reflective eyes, and posing in full daylight!


Another of the nightjar species, a male Common Nighthawk, also entertained me with both its peent vocalizations and its wing “booms” made at the bottom of its steep courtship dives. In fact I was beginning to think that this particular bird had taken exception to my presence as it appeared to dive directly above me three or four times in quick succession, “booming” its flight feathers on its wings as if to drive me off. A memorable interaction.

I also studied a pelagic bird at distance over Bulls Bay through my spotting scope. I’ve not yet identified this bird, but it initially reminded me of a Northern Gannet (by approximate size, shape, location, and behavior). It had a big, longish, non-forked tail; long, pointy wings; light ventral plumage; and dark dorsal plumage. It appeared to hold its head well out in front (straight out), slightly down (loon-like), and with a fairly pointy bill shape. It was larger and leaner than a gull. If anyone has a suggestion on a possible ID I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Not to be outdone by these great birds, the shorebirds were resting in good number at the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s at both Tuesday evening’s high tide, as related above, and again during Wednesday morning’s high tide. Red Knots, Dunlin, Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitchers were present in high numbers, almost all showing full alternate (breeding) plumage. 

Other observations from this great overnight birding outing included the obvious absence of horseshoe crabs (at least on the North Beach where I’ve seen many in prior Mays). I saw two black racers (snakes), raccoons, two deer, several fox squirrels, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, butterflies, deer flies, dragonflies, and American alligators (all but one staying in the water; the one out sunning was actually gaping its mouth perhaps attempting to keep cool). 

A dragonfly, perhaps a female Four-spotted Pennant, on my tripod

Unfortunately Upper Summerhouse Pond is heavily stressed showing an off color, many jumping fish, and a big fish kill; I don’t know the source of this stress (the pond is really shallow and should easily turn over in the winds thus keeping the aeration sufficient), but something has hurt it, badly.

Even though there were distant cloud banks at Tuesday’s sunset, I was able to see both Jupiter rising in the eastern sky and Venus setting just behind the sun in the west. Jupiter was so bright that I first mistook it for Venus. It occurred to me Tuesday night that I was very likely the most geographically isolated person in Charleston County, likely further afield. The solitude and rest was the opposite of isolation, rather I felt relaxed, comfortable, and immensely fortunate to be able to have the island, and likely the entire Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, to myself. 

My daughter, Ann, and I recently helped Mary Catherine Martin (SCDNR) in posting beach closings on the southern end of Lighthouse Island in the northern reaches of the Cape Romain NWR. It is a disappointing reality that any areas within a National Wildlife Refuge need to be closed to protect the wildlife, but this is the reality. Similar closings have been made on many other coastal beaches, banks, and sand bars both developed and undeveloped, along S.C.’s coast. Audubon S.C. continues its shorebird stewardship program to educate people on avian conservation efforts. The simple message is for people to share the beaches with the shorebirds. It’s shorebird nesting time, and the shorebirds need simply to be left alone. Do go out to see the shorebirds, study and observe them from a distance, but keep both people and dogs away from posted closings. It’s the shorebirds’ home, and it’s likely a life-or-death interaction for the specific birds nesting right there on the sand. Give the birds this simple respect of leaving them alone and, thus, give them their best change of living and reproducing. Then there will be more birds to see and enjoy!


23 February 2018

Tufted Duck still present in Jack's Creek, but many ducks have apparently already left

F 23 Feb 2018

We had a special two day, overnight survey on Bulls this past Monday and Tuesday, 19 to 20 Mar 2018. John Cox and Kent Bedenbaugh were able to join me for what is always a more relaxed and enjoyable survey effort capped off by an overnight stay in the Dominick House on Bulls. We weren’t the only birders on the island though as the house was full of shorebird researchers, a couple of whom are staying in the house from January through April and about a dozen of whom were there for a few days and nights attempting to net and band shorebirds. John, Kent, and I watched the sun set across the marsh (John and Kent both saw the green flash through their binoculars, I missed seeing it without my binoculars) then we watched the sun rise over the Boneyard Beach the next morning. Over the two day survey we tallied 80 species of birds.

The Tufted Duck (TUDU) has been seen by several other birders and is being listed on eBird checklists as a “continuing bird at this location.” We were fortunate enough to see the TUDU from three different vantage points around Jack’s Creek: from the Old Fort, from the elbow of the emergency dike oceanfront at Jack’s, and from the Observation Deck at the terminus of Sheepshead Ridge Road. Each time the TUDU was easily located floating, apparently contentedly, with Ruddy Ducks and an occasional Lesser Scaup. Scopes were needed to confirm the duck’s identity, but we could easily see the TUDU with binoculars as being different from the other ducks. Most of the Lesser Scaup that the TUDU was associated with when we originally located it appear to be gone. Seems somewhat early for waterfowl migration, at least according to the calendar, but this is why we tally the birds in the first place. I’ve begun looking at the big picture of six years of survey data and will next look at waterfowl in Jack’s trying to get a specific handle on spring migration dates. I’m hoping that the TUDU will hang out in Jack’s until the next survey.

I was pleased to get a fair look at the shorebirds for the first time this winter. Having missed several survey dates in both December and January, and then being distracted by the Tufted Duck in early February, I’ve missed shorebird surveying opportunities since November. I was disappointed to find absolutely no shorebirds on the North Beach on Monday. We did see a few Black Scoters and Northern Gannets in the waters off the beach plus numerous gulls, terns, and pelicans on Bird Key Bulls Bay (the sand bar in Bulls Bay off the North Beach), but nothing at all on the sands of the North Beach itself. I believe that this is the first time in my survey efforts that the North Beach had no shorebirds of any species or number. It’s not the high tide shorebird roost that it used to be. The beach itself appears to recovering nicely from the effects of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma offering good shelling, slowly growing dunes and vegetation, and its usual constant shoreline flux.

There were fair numbers of shorebirds, however, in the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s. The shorebird researchers, about a dozen of them, were on site in that marsh setting up drop nets trying to net some of the shorebirds. Fortunately we were able to survey the shorebirds present before they were ready to drop their net. I don’t think that we interfered with their effort nor do I feel that they interfered with our effort. We did tally two Piping Plovers, both banded birds that we’ve seen on Bulls before, and a Wilson’s Plover along with the expected Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Plovers. Unfortunately for the banders the birds didn’t cooperate; the birds didn’t walk under the net set, refused to be corralled towards the net, and ultimately flew off to the beaches as the tides were dropping thus exposing apparently good feeding grounds. 

On Tuesday morning, after watching the sun rise over the Boneyard Beach and after looking, unsuccessfully, for the TUDU again in Jack’s (from the Observation Deck), we spent about an hour birding the grounds around the Dominick House, one of my favorite birding locations. In that hour we tallied 26 species including a White-eyed Vireo. The highlight of Tuesday’s survey was a large, loose raft of Black Scoter off the front beach (though not in the defined survey area proper). Both Upper Summerhouse Pond and Lower Summerhouse Pond were slow birding, so we spent much of that time looking at all the American alligators hauled out enjoying the warm February day.