18 September 2017

Eclipse watch of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, banded Piping Plovers and Reddish Egret white morph continues on Bulls.

Sun 27 Aug 2017

For last Monday’s total solar eclipse watch, I really wanted to watch for animal behavioral changes during the eclipse. After many plans, alternate plans, modified plans, and final plans, my wife joined me at the intersection of I’on Swamp Road and Willow Hall Road, both gravel Forest Service roads in the Francis Marion National Forest and home to a known Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) colony. RCWOs take years to excavate a cavity in a living tree (living wood is much harder than dead wood favored by all other woodpeckers) and live as an extended family unit and permanent residents in several nearby cavities. During daylight RCWOs will forage widely through the forest and are known to return to their family colony cavities just prior to sunset for roosting. It was this “return to roost” behavior that I had hoped to observe during the eclipse. 

A scouting trip to this longleaf pine forest location on Friday 11 Aug 2017 in the couple of hours preceding sunset confirmed the presence of RCWOs at the intersection, but I did not observe a specific “return to roost” behavior associated with sunset on that day. Unfortunately during the eclipse watch I did not tally any RCWOs at all. Both the scouting trip and the eclipse watch were relatively quiet bird wise. There are many possible reasons why the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers didn’t return to roost at either sunset or eclipse. Sunset is a much more prolonged and gradual event than a total solar eclipse. As a matter of fact, I was very surprised by the marginal loss of light intensity during partial eclipse and the very rapid change of light intensity as totality began and ended. (Rather than light diminution during the partial eclipse I perceived instead a subtle change of light quality; just prior to totality colors seemed muted but perceived light intensity remained relatively high as measured with a handheld light meter.) 

As eclipse totality began, sunlight intensity decreased so rapidly that I briefly wished for a flashlight with which to write notes on my clipboard. Once my eyes quickly accommodated during totality, I was able to enjoy seeing the eclipse through binoculars, a planet that became clearly visible high in the SSE sky, spots of solar flares, and the beads along the edge of the moon signaling the end of totality. But no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. A negative result, but a result. 

One modest animal behavior that we witnessed, however, related to the palamedes swallowtails that were at our forest location. Several palamedes swallowtails were standing on the gravel roadway in a tight formation; they were vibrating their wings, not really fluttering their wings so much as vibrating wings, bodies, and legs. During eclipse totality all the palamedes swallowtails left the roadway flying off into the woods. Sixteen minutes after totality ended, the first palamedes swallowtails returned and by 22 minutes after totality were once again standing in formation on the roadway. A second animal behavior was the multitude of frogs in the forest that began calling during totality, having been quiet during full daylight and partial eclipse, but calling ceased within 4 minutes after totality ended. 

I caught the CEX ferry out to Bulls Island last Thursday 24 Aug 2017 for the ongoing waterfowl/shorebird survey. I hadn’t been on the ferry for some months, but Captain Wil Christenson and First Mate Nick Johnson graciously ferried me out at the last minute. We were able to share brief stories about Monday’s total solar eclipse experiences and wonder whether the Spartina alterniflora (salt marsh cordgrass) was producing seedheads early. 

Water levels in the impoundments on Bulls remain high (full but not overflowing). Sea oats are growing great on the North Beach, the inlet from the oceanfront saltwater marsh (at Jack’s) has been closed off (silted in) leaving relatively high saltwater levels in that marsh, and the beaches continue to be resculpted by the winds and waves. Fall shorebird migration continues and some summer resident birds appear to have left. 

There were four banded Piping Plovers (PIPL), plus two unbanded, on the North Beach including three that have been tallied on Bulls before. Of particular note was the PIPL banded as: Of,YG:X,O (Orange flag upper L, Yellow over Green lower L: metal upper R, Orange band lower R), also fondly known to her banders as Bahama Mama, so named because she spends her winters in the Bahamas. Interestingly this is the third consecutive migratory season when she has used Bulls Island as a migratory stopover spot. I hope that Bahama Mama will continue to use Bulls during migration; it is fascinating to understand how Bulls Island is so important as both wintering grounds and migratory stopover for Piping Plovers.

Of,YG:X,O, a.k.a., Bahama Mama

There was another white morph Reddish Egret (REEG), presumably the same seen during the last survey (see previous blog posting, below, for picture) and this time it had a red morph REEG friend hanging out in the same location. Misses on this survey included Least Bittern, White Ibis, Western Sandpiper, and Black-necked Stilt.


P.S. I was unable to conduct a survey in early Sept as everyone was in hurricane prep mode prior to hurricane Irma. I do have a report on Bulls to share from the Coastal Expeditions web site:


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


07 July 2017

Summer is here

Th 29 June 2017

Summer has finally and fully arrived at the Cape Romain NWR. You can tell either by the calendar, as I am fond of remembering the solstices and equinoxes, or by the Spartina alterniflora (saltmarsh cordgrass) that never seems to fully green up until very late June. Well, the grasses are finally and fully green, and the transformation of the marsh vista is equally subtle and fantastic. For months I've been watching the Spartina grow greener as the brown tips fade slowly. Summer is here.

And the birding wasn't too bad either. Summer is "supposed" to be the slow time for birding, but that really doesn't seem to be reflected much in the species count that I had on the day: 18 species on the boat ride, 55 species on the island, and 57 species on the day. Not too bad for the "slow" time of the year. There were several highlights including my FOY Reddish Egret, Common Terns, Wood Stork, Whimbrel, and Black Scoter. There were also fairly high counts of Least Terns and Black Terns (LETE were nesting on Bulls in May, BLTE may be nesting there now). Among the shorebirds there were high counts of Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Wilson's Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. 

Alas, I listened for and looked for the Black-whiskered Vireo that we found two weeks ago but did not re-locate it. My eBird checklist from the island is available at:


Non-avian sightings included a black racer (snake), several fox squirrels, American alligators, and Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Largely absent were the mosquitoes, thanks mostly to the persistent NNE winds on the day. I did see a couple of turtle crawls on the North Beach and noted several marked loggerhead nests on the same beach. I think that the turtle patrol folks are having a busy summer. And the dune vegetation working to stabilize the dunes on the North Beach has finally recovered from hurricane Matthew (October 2016) that had flattened many of the newest and lowest dunes. The sea oats are really taking root and growing tall now.

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

Wed 12 July 2017 4.5 ft high tide forecast at 10:29 AM
Thurs 13 July 2017 4.6 ft high tide forecast at 11:10 AM


14 June 2017

A day of firsts, including likely first state record of Black-whiskered Vireo

W 14 June 2017

Irvin Pitts and Madison Stelljes, one of this summer's Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) folks working at Cape Romain NWR, joined me for yesterday's waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls. It was a day of firsts for everyone in the group. For Madison, who has lived her whole life here in the Lowcountry, indeed she is a fourth generation Lowcountry resident, yesterday was her first ever trip to Bulls Island, so everything was new to her. She will spend her summer at the Refuge helping with the turtle patrols, staffing the Sewee Visitor Center, doing general and odd jobs about, and, I hope, helping more with our survey. 

For Irvin, we were keeping close count of his first-of-year (FOY) sightings when we had a first-for-everyone. After that we kind of lost track of his other FOY sightings, but it must have ended up at 8 or 9 FOY sightings for him. 

We were on Alligator Alley on the dike separating Jack's Creek from Pool 3 listening for Least Bitterns and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (which we did get). Irvin then heard a persistent vireo calling from the wooded edge of Jack's Creek. He immediately thought of Black-whiskered Vireo (BWVI) that he had previously seen and heard in the Florida keys; but BWVI is a Florida species and "shouldn't be here." We compared recordings of BWVI with similar looking and sounding Red-eyed Vireo (that we of course do have here in S.C.). We thought that we were much more likely hearing a REVI with a sore throat or some other aberrant song than a BWVI. Irvin sheepishly said "You might think I'm crazy, but I really think that this is what we're hearing," and he showed me Sibley's app image of a Black-whiskered Vireo. "Then what we really need is for this bird to come out of the woods and show itself," I said. Then the bird flew over our heads and perched in a couple of trees for binocular views and photos. Black-whiskered Vireo!

Black-whiskered Vireo. Photo by Irvin Pitts.

Here is part of my description of this Black-whiskered Vireo submitted with our eBird checklist: "From binocular view, bird showed to clearly be a vireo, long pointy bill showing smooth transition from head through to bill tip, black whiskers (malar stripes) down lateral throat, yellow vent, notched tail, eye line, unmarked dorsal body and wing. First thought to sound like a slightly off REVI but kept making the 'chip chip Phillip' call." My full description of this BWVI encounter, along with an audio recording of its song and additional pictures, can be found on our eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/iss/view/checklist/S37588214. First indications are that this is a first record of Black-whiskered Vireo for S.C.; we will be submitting a full report to the state records committee soon.

Not to be outdone by that excitement the rest of our survey was also very rewarding. We had 22 species on the ferry, 68 species on the island, and 70 species on the day. Highlights included two White-rumped Sandpipers (one of which was about our very first survey bird of the morning and the other of which was exactly where we saw the same species two weeks ago on the survey), Wilson's Plover family (male, female, plus chick on the North Beach), Black-necked Stilt chick hiding in a sparse tuft of grass in Jack's, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flyover, and a Purple Gallinule (flying from Upper Summerhouse Pond to Lower Summerhouse Pond over Turkey Walk Trail). 

Mammalian species were well represented on the day's outing, too, with sightings of fox squirrels, a marsh rabbit, a raccoon, and Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. We chased a black racer snake out of the roadway and had many giant swallowtail butterflies all over the island. 

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

Mon 26 June 2017 5.2 ft high tide forecast at 10:26 AM
Tues 27 June 2017 5.1 ft high tide forecast at 11:23 AM
Wed 28 June 2017 5.1 ft high tide forecast at 12:19 PM


06 June 2017

The young'uns stole the show

Wed 31 May 2017

Pam Ford and Ed Blitch joined me for Monday's waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls, and we really took good advantage of having our own F&WS boat and, thus, our own time schedule. Except for some of the turtle volunteers and three kayakers who landed on the North Beach, I believe that we had the island to ourselves. It was a great way to spend Memorial Day.

While we did see some good birds, it was the very young that really got our attention. On the North Beach we watched a mother Wilson's Plover (WIPL) protect her chick from an aggressive Ruddy Turnstone. This family was really checking out a horseshoe crab, one of the very few that I've seen this year. I recall one recent May when the North Beach was so littered with horseshoe crabs that Wil Christenson and I returned 72 crabs to the ocean in less than one hour. Horseshoe crabs this year have been greatly reduced in number on local beaches making me wonder what annual cyclic variations in horseshoe crab spawning may be at work. Anyway, this one WIPL chick had found this dead horseshoe crab to be an appropriate home base from which to explore the beach. 

Wilson's Plover, mother and chick. Photo by Pam Ford

We saw 4 Killdeer chicks exploring the sandy edges of Jack's Creek under the supervision of their parents. One KILL pair was taking turns apparently incubating an egg in their "nest" immediately on the shoulder of the dike. 

Killdeer on nest. Photo by Ed Blitch

And the annual nesting of Barn Swallows at the emergency shelter at the picnic grounds also vied for our attention.

Barn Swallow chicks. Photo by Ed Blitch

But the best family show for the day came from the large pod of at least 14 Atlantic bottlenose dolphin that we slipped through when we left the island. One adult repeatedly slapped its tail on the surface of the water, another fully breached out of the water, and several young calves displayed their best synchronized swimming with momma dolphin. I've never seen such a large pod, nor had I ever witnessed the tail slapping behavior. That pod was the brightest moment in a jewel of a day on the island. 

But about the birds, we tallied 23 species from the boat, 62 species on the island, and 63 species on the day. I also had Cattle Egrets in the Hwy 17 median (used to be a common sighting many years ago but not recently), Wild Turkeys on Bulls Island Road going into and leaving Garris Landing, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Garris that didn't make it onto an eBird checklist. Other notable species included Piping Plovers, Red Knots, Least Bitterns, American Coot, and White-rumped Sandpiper (that was a life-list species for Ed). Our eBird checklist for the island, filled with wonderful pictures thanks to both Pam and Ed, is available at: https://ebird.org/ebird/iss/view/checklist/S37290704.

White-rumped Sandpiper. Photo by Pam Ford

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

Mon 12 June 2017 4.3 ft high tide forecast at 10:15 AM
Tues 13 June 2017 4.3 ft high tide forecast at 10:54 AM
Wed 14 June 2017 4.3 ft high tide forecast at 11:35 AM


16 May 2017

A tale of two days, one a Spring Bird Count and one a waterfowl/shorebird survey

Tues 9 May 2017

Sunday 7 May 2017 was the annual Charleston Spring Bird Count. It is essentially a spring version of our annual Christmas Bird Count using the same 15 mile diameter counting circle and the same subdivisions for counting within that circle. As I recall hearing, the count circle was placed where it was precisely to include Bulls Island. We've always divided the island into north and south halves, each counted by different teams of birders. For several years Felicia Sanders and Mary Catherine Martin have counted the north half of Bulls, sometimes with the assistance of other birders, and Starr Hazard has helped me count the southern half of Bulls, also sometimes with the assistance of other birders. This year just we four covered the island and the marshes between the landings, with special thanks to both Felicia and MC for the boating arrangements. 

Unfortunately for the shorebird counting, the noon low tides on Sunday left the shorebirds scattered away from their usual high tide roosts. Felicia and MC did however discover many Least Terns incubating eggs right on top of the new, uncompleted dike crossing Jack's Creek. While I had noticed that numbers of skimmers, gulls, terns, and shorebirds were resting along central lengths of the new dike I did not know that the Least Terns were nesting there. Here's hoping that the Least Terns have a successful nesting season on that dike. Maybe other terns and skimmers will likewise use the dike top for nesting in a few weeks.

Starr and I enjoyed relaxed time to bird the picnic grounds and lawn at the Dominick House, one of my favorite birding spots on the whole coast line. I always anticipate these counts that allow me to focus on areas of Bulls that I don't have the luxury of birding during my biweekly waterfowl/shorebird surveys. We heard and saw several Least Bitterns (always a special treat), several Anhingas,  numerous Tricolored Herons and Green Herons (mostly as flyovers), a Wood Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Common Nighthawks, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks, and Orchard Orioles. Always a special treat, we saw three Bald Eagles; one mature eagle was standing right on the low-tide front beach.

Unfortunately there was almost no activity at the rookery spot well south along Mills Road. We saw only a pair of Green Herons that flushed from there and saw no nests at all. For years the egrets and herons have used that site as a rookery. The site appears to retain several of the bare, "leggy," dead trees that held the stick nests in prior years and the water level appears to remain high. The nests just aren't there right now. 

We got to talking about Spotted Sandpipers (SPSA) and how it was nice to see them in their alternate (breeding) spots for a short time before they migrate away. Turns out that SPSA are much more widespread in their breeding range than any other North American sandpiper. Their breeding range spans the entire width of North America from roughly Kansas northward about to the tree line in the North American arctic (which is primarily where all other migratory sandpipers migrate to for their breeding). Additionally SPSA are polyandrous, i.e., one female will mate with more than one male, a very unusual mating system for birds. This leads to sometimes vigorous competition between females for limited males who, by mid-season, are too busy incubating eggs to be available for mating. In SPSA the female will lay a clutch of up to 4 eggs (one egg weighs approximately 20 % of the weigh of the female bird), leave those to the incubation care of a male, then move on to mate with another male to produce another clutch. This behavior seems to come with costs of frequent emigrant movements due to reproductive failures,  relatively short life expectancy (3.7 years), high numbers of eggs laid (into multiple nests with multiple males), and low nest success. 


P.S. Information presented on SPSA comes primarily from: Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988 The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the  Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc.: New York. p. 131.

Tues 16 May 2017

Julie Mobley joined me yesterday for the waterfowl/shorebird survey. We had the luxury of our own F&WS boat so weren't committed to any particular time schedule but our own. We put that to good use on the ride out to Bulls when we stopped at one point to observe a few shorebirds; while drifting in the tidal currents and wind we heard the distinctive "water sizzling on a hot skillet" sound of a Nelson's Sparrow. I quickly killed the motor and heard repeated calls from the sparrow hiding in the Spartina. We never had a good look at the bird, but the repeated call was so distinctive that it became an easy identification. That may have been the first time that I've ever heard a Nelson's Sparrow. Pretty cool beginning to our outing.

Good news for the Least Terns found nesting on the new dike in Jack's (read about their discovery above under 9 May 2017 section). Significant lengths of the new dike have now been closed to any access to allow the Least Terns, and hopefully other terns, gulls, and skimmers, to nest. In a fortune of good timing, the construction shovels appear to have been removed from the island very recently. I'm hopeful that this means the dike construction is nearing completion.

Shorebirds continue to hang around the island, many in full-on alternate (breeding) plumage including Black-bellied Plovers, Wilson's Plovers (nesting on Bulls, we saw two juveniles), many Spotted Sandpipers, many Red Knot (uncommon on Bulls; the 43 that I tallied is likely the highest count that I've ever had on Bulls), Sanderling, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Additionally we had a Stilt Sandpiper, a Black Tern, a trio of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a few Common Terns, a couple of Caspian Terns, and many Sandwich Terns (47, a very high count). 

Anecdotal observations by differing SCDNR folks, consistent with my own observations, are that the usual May spring tide influx of horseshoe crabs laying eggs, a favorite food of many shorebird species (especially Red Knots), hasn't been happening this year, at least not yet. Rather than seeing scores of horseshoe crabs coming ashore I've seen few to none. I've noticed that many fruit and nut trees only produce decent crops either biennially (i.e., every two years) or triennially (i.e., every three years). Makes me wonder whether horseshoe crabs exhibit similar multi-year cycles in their mating and egg laying. If anyone has knowledge or thoughts on this I'd appreciate hearing from you.

The most unexpected sighting was a flyover Sandhill Crane while we were on the North Beach. It soared in off of Bulls Bay directly overhead showing it's red crown. New species for the survey (I think) and new eBird species for Bulls Island!

We tallied 66 species on the island and 72 species on a beautiful day's outing. Combining my Sun 7 May 2017 Spring Bird Count (read about that above) and this waterfowl/shorebird survey gave 93 species! Our two main eBird checklists for  Bulls are available online at:

Cathy Miller sent me a link to a story about BO:X,g, a.k.a., Old Man Plover. Since you made it this far into this blog posting, I'm going to share it with you:

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

Sun 28 May 2017 5.2 ft high tide forecast at 10:42 AM
Mon 29 May 2017 5.1 ft high tide forecast at 11:41 AM


01 May 2017

Birds have returned to the North Beach and a brief update on Old Man Plover (see P.S.)

M 1 May 2017

Mary Kennerty graciously joined me for the Bulls Island waterfowl/shorebird survey back on 30 March 2017; apparently that experience didn't discourage her because she came back for another survey with me last Friday 28 April 2017. Like a trooper, she put up with an onslaught of mosquitoes that only yielded when we on the beaches in a good, stiff wind.

Bull's birds are still in transition from winter species through migratory species to summer species. Most ducks are gone so I was quite pleased to see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers. A couple of migratory, I presume, Piping Plovers were on the North Beach; both were banded, one of which I also saw two weeks ago in the same location. Some Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, most of these shorebird species molting into alternate (breeding) plumage, remain. Numerous summer residents have arrived including Least Bittern, Cattle Egret (not particularly common on Bulls), Wilson's Plover, Black-necked Stilts, Sandwich Terns, Least Terns, and Gull-billed Terns. And migratory Semipalmated Sandpipers were present. Not yet arrived for the summer are Black Terns, Reddish Egrets, or Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

Perhaps the best finding was that there were, for the first time in 18 months or more, many birds on the North Beach. For several years of this survey from 2012 through 2015 there used to be many, many shorebirds, gulls, skimmers, and terns to be found on the North Beach throughout the year, but for the last 18 months or so the overall number of any birds on the once thriving North Beach dropped precipitously. Mary Catherine Martin (MC), shorebird biologist with S.C. DNR who surveys the birds of Bulls Bay including Bull's North Beach, has seem similar sharp declines in birds on the North Beach. 

One of the great pleasures of birding Bull's as regularly as I do is watching and noting the changes, both subtle and dramatic, over two-week time scales. I've often commented to my fellow surveyors, speaking out loud mostly as a conscious effort to note and remember the changes that I see, that the island does change on every trip out. The North Beach has significantly accreted over the past five years though it's edges were somewhat softened by October's Matthew, but it is not obvious to me (or to MC either) why the birds seem to have abandoned the North Beach. At least last Friday there were many birds there, a rewarding observation that I hope will be repeated many more times.

A portion of the North Beach above the high tide line has been seasonally closed to protect nesting birds like Wilson's Plover and Least Tern. I've seen many similar roped-off areas along many other local beaches and sand bars. It is unfortunate that such efforts need to me made so explicitly in a National Wildlife Refuge, but people really do need such reminders. Even on our developed beaches these restricted areas provide absolutely critical habitat for beach-nesting species. Please, when you (or you as a conscientious human companion of your canine friends) come across such restricted areas on any beach, sand bar, or barrier island, respect the posted boundary and let's give the beach nesting species their best chances for nesting. It is such a small consideration on our part that means life for many species that are simply following instinctive behavior. As the signs say, "let them nest, let them rest." 

We did find several fox squirrels scattered over the island (Beach Road, Mills Road, Summerhouse Road at Upper Summerhouse Pond, and the grounds at the Dominick House). Non target birds of note included Painted Bunting, Belted Kingfisher, and Bobolink.

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

Sun 14 May 2017 4.4 ft high tide forecast at 10:40 AM
Mon 15 May 2017 4.3 ft high tide forecast at 11:19 AM


P.S. I had an email late today from Alice Van Zoeren about Old Man Plover. She says: "Your buddy BO:X,g is doing well up here [Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan]. He has a mate and they should have some eggs before long. Hopefully his missing foot won't interfere with his balance during mating. I was just out to see them this morning."

21 April 2017

BO:X,g, aka Old Man Plover...what a stud!

I completed our most recent waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls Island last Friday 14 Apr. I was going to write about how most of the ducks have flown (only a very few Blue-winged Teal and Bufflehead remain), how shorebird migration was showing both winter holdovers (Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin) and spring migrants (Piping Plover, see more below), and about all the summer resident species showing up like Gull-billed Tern, Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Least Bittern, Black-necked Stilt, Orchard Oriole, and Great-crested Flycatcher. 

I was going to write about all that, but the news from Michigan that I received on Thursday 13 Apr 2017 kept distracting me from that task. I've written about the banded Piping Plover BO:X,g (a.k.a. Old Man Plover) many times on my blog. I thought it appropriate to dedicate this report to him in celebration of a will and determination that I, for one, would do well to emulate.

My records indicate that I first recorded BO:X,g on Bulls Island on Fri 19 Oct 2012, though he may well have been spending time on Bulls before then. Usually avoiding humanizing their banded birds ("BO:X,g" is the banding code indicating both the location and color of leg bands), and by then already 10 years old, BO:X,g had so endeared himself to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore banders, lead by Alice Van Zoeren, that they dubbed him "Old Man Plover" because of both his age and his proven ability to fledge chicks. 

BO:X,g hatched in 2002, and began breeding in 2005, at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Michigan's upper coast of Lake Michigan, and he returns there every year for what has become very successful breeding.  At least since 2012 he spends most of his year here on Bulls island showing very high site fidelity for the North Beach or the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack's Creek (only a couple of hundred meters apart, actually). 

On 18 Nov 2016 we found BO:X,g in some distress with what appeared to be a woody stem of vegetation firmly stuck beneath at least one of his left leg bands. He was actively probing the sand as in a feeding motion, but constantly "favored" his left leg by keeping it tucked up high. He did not seem to be in specific or obvious pain from this encumbrance but did distinctly favor his left leg as though it was bothersome at a minimum. Look closely directly beneath his tail in this photo for a thin dark line that is the offending impediment.

Photo by Kent Bedenbaugh.

By our next survey on 3 Dec 2016 BO:X,g appeared to have shed the offending stick. He was, however, still favoring that left leg. He appeared to hold it off the ground some but I could still see his foot rather than having his foot fully withdrawn under his ventral feathers. He did seem to use the "sore" leg in walking but seemed to hold up that leg when standing still.

The next report that we had on BO:X,g came from Melissa Bimbi from her 27 Jan 2017 survey on Bulls when she photographed him having lost all of his left toes, having lost the Orange leg band (the "O" in his banding label), and left with a stumpy left leg. He likely underwent an autologous amputation of his toes due to injuries likely sustained from the impediment stuck under his bands that caused an abrasion, a lesion, or perhaps a blood flow constriction.

Photo by Melissa Bimbi.

By 18 Feb 2017 BO:X,g was still on the North Beach with other Piping Plovers and was seen actively walking and feeding albeit with a slight stutter step due to his toe loss.

I saw Old Man Plover on our 30 Mar 2017 survey. I reported to the Michigan bander Alice Van Zoeren "Old Man Plover looks like he's getting ready to migrate. By that I mean that his colors are brightened, he looks plump, and he seems little affected by his foot loss. At one point I watched him stand on his stubbed leg and scratch at the sand 2 times with his one remaining foot; he seems to have adapted well, considering." 

Ron R posted a comment on my blog "Old Man is currently (April 11-12 2017) on the beach at Port Dover, Ontario. Still hobbling but otherwise appears quite healthy." 

On Thursday 13 Apr 2017 I received this from Alice: 

"He has arrived!!!! Sleeping Bear Plover crew lead went out to check this morning and there he was! ...on the exact same arrival date as the past two years." She sent along this photo-proof of his presence."

Photo from Alice Van Zoeren.

Here is what Old Man Plover looked like on Fri 15 Apr 2017:

Photo from Alice Van Zoeren.

What a stud! He survived a serious injury and an autologous toe loss. He recovered enough to migrate, right on schedule, all the way back to his breeding grounds in Michigan. I'll not be betting against him successfully fledging a new brood or against him returning to Bulls Island this fall. I'm looking forward to updates from Michigan and to seeing Old Man Plover once again on Bulls Island. I think that he'll make it back.

Oh, about spring migration of other Piping Plovers…Bulls Island is not only a winter residence for several Piping Plovers, it is also a migration stopover for other Piping Plovers. On 7 July 2016 I recorded a Piping Plover bearing bands O,YG:X,O, aka "Bahama Mama." From Alice Van Zoeren, "Exciting news. This is our first report of the 2016-17 non-breeding season! The plover you saw is known as 'Bahama Mama'. She breeds at Muskegon, MI and winters in the Bahamas. She and her mate lost all three of the chicks they hatched this summer so apparently she has no reason to stay up north. She hatched at Ludington, MI in 2013 and was given her unique band combination in the Bahamas when she was trapped there in 2015." On last Friday's survey (14 Apr 2017) I recorded "Bahama Mama" again as she apparently stopped over on her spring migration. Again from Alice Van Zoeren, "I'll let the monitors at Muskegon, MI to watch for her [Bahama Mama] return. It's always useful...and very fun...to get report of plovers in migration. Last year she stopped through NC along her way." 

"You can help us out by spreading the word about sending reports of banded Piping Plovers to plover@umn.edu or to any of the other plover research groups or to BBL. Banded birds are doing a service to their species by letting us understand their habitat needs and other aspects of their lives in order to better protect them. We can only learn how to help them if people report sightings." [From Alice Van Zoeren.] See also: https://www.waterbirds.umn.edu/piping-plovers/reporting.

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

Fri 28 Apr 2017 5.4 ft high tide forecast at 10:02 AM
Sat 29 Apr 2017 5.2 ft high tide forecast at 10:56 AM


P.S. I'm reminded of a poem by D. H. Lawreance:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

19 March 2017

Fewer ducks and fewer shorebirds balanced by good woodland birding

Fri 17 Mar 2017

Irvin Pitts joined me for yesterday's waterfowl/shorebird survey that started out very cold (temperatures on Bulls Island Road into Garris Landing dipped to 19 °F) and sunny. We were bundled up for our boat ride out and were not in any hurry to set a speed record in that Yamaha wind. Our birding started out on a terrific note with a very early sighting of a Bald Eagle.

We tallied 75 species on the day, 72 on the island, and 39 on the survey proper. Our eBird checklist from the island is available at: https://ebird.org/ebird/iss/view/checklist/S35231199 and is appended below. Many of the winter waterfowl appear to have left on migration. While Ruddy Ducks were one of the most numerous ducks over this winter, we saw none yesterday. Buffleheads continue as the most numerous duck, and we got nice, bright views of several other species including American Wigeon, Mottled Duck, Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser. 

The shorebirds seemed reduced in number, too. The North Beach continues to have very few birds, though we did see two Piping Plovers there to add to the seven we spotted in the saltwater marsh oceanfront at Jack's Creek. We did not see Old Man Plover. Interestingly we had high counts of Ruddy Turnstones, Wilson Plovers, American Oystercatchers, and Sanderlings to offset our low counts of Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and no Western Sandpipers.

We also had fairly good woodland birding on the island. Among the warbler species we had Black-and-white Warbler, Pine Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, and Palm Warbler. We also had Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Marsh Wren, and two Sharp-shinned Hawks. 

The yellow jessamine that had been so prominent recently on the island (see pictures on my previous blog post) was still blooming but was greatly reduced in its presence. Both of the inlets draining the saltwater marshes oceanfront at Jack's Creek have greatly filled in, one reduced to a trickle and one completely filled in; perhaps the tides simply haven't been high enough to flood those marshes recently. The new dike construction continues slowly; perhaps they're waiting for the water level to drop more.

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

Thurs 30 Mar 2017 5.4 ft high tide forecast at 10:18 AM
Fri 31 Mar 2017 5.2 ft high tide forecast at 11:08 AM


Cape Romain NWR--Bulls Island, Charleston, South Carolina, US
Mar 16, 2017 9:48 AM - 5:03 PM
Protocol: Traveling
12.3 mile(s)
Comments:     Conducting the ongoing waterfowl/ shorebird survey with Irvin Pitts. Effort: 10.3 mi and 1 hr 30 min by truck plus 2.0 mi and 5 hr 10 min by foot. Weather: sunny and cold; temps 32 F to 50 F; winds NW at 10 mph; 30.40 in Hg barometer. Tide was forecast 4.8 ft high at 11:01 AM.
72 species (+1 other taxa)

Gadwall  20
American Wigeon  3
Mottled Duck  14
American Black/Mottled Duck  3     Too distant to ID to species.
Blue-winged Teal  28
Northern Shoveler  44
Green-winged Teal  4
Lesser Scaup  32
Bufflehead  91     A fairly accurate count.
Hooded Merganser  19
Pied-billed Grebe  43
Northern Gannet  1
Double-crested Cormorant  18
Anhinga  6
Brown Pelican  10
Great Blue Heron  5
Great Egret  15
Snowy Egret  24
Little Blue Heron  12
Tricolored Heron  25     A fairly accurate count.
White Ibis  30
Black Vulture  1
Turkey Vulture  7
Osprey  3
Sharp-shinned Hawk  2
Cooper's Hawk  1
Bald Eagle  2
Clapper Rail  1
Sora  1
Common Gallinule  29
American Coot  71
American Oystercatcher  4
Grey Plover  7
Wilson's Plover  4
Semipalmated Plover  141
Piping Plover  9
Killdeer  4
Ruddy Turnstone  50
Sanderling  152
Dunlin  120
Least Sandpiper  3
Short-billed Dowitcher  1
Willet  10
Ring-billed Gull  2
Herring Gull  1
Forster's Tern  14
Mourning Dove  16
Belted Kingfisher  2
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)  1
Eastern Phoebe  5
Blue Jay  1
Tree Swallow  500
Carolina Chickadee  1
Marsh Wren  5
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher  3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  5
Grey Catbird  1
Northern Mockingbird  1
Cedar Waxwing  9
Black-and-white Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  2
Palm Warbler  1
Pine Warbler  4
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)  65
White-throated Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  2
Swamp Sparrow  6
Eastern Towhee  1
Northern Cardinal  3
Red-winged Blackbird  8
Common Grackle  16
Boat-tailed Grackle  70

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (/content/iss)

06 March 2017

Video update on Old Man Plover plus yellow jessamine profusely blooming

Tuesday 21 Feb 2017

I made it out to Bulls twice late last week, once for the ongoing waterfowl/shorebird survey on Thursday 16 Feb (thanks to Olivia Hirst-Wilson for helping with the survey) and once leading a Charleston Natural History Society/Audubon field trip on Saturday 18 Feb. The absolute highlight was seeing Old Man Plover, aka BO:X,g, walking on the North Beach on Saturday. This was the first time that I had seen him since early December 2016. Everyone of the 27 folks on our field trip got scope views of him. I was able to capture a brief, 5 s video of him walking. 

Even though both the waterfowl and shorebirds are fewer in number than they were in late January 2017 there were a few other highlights. Over the two trips I tallied 89 avian species. Of particular note were White-winged Scoter, Wilson's Plover, and Peregrine Falcon. 

Friday 3 Mar 2017

Chris Snook was able to join me yesterday for the ongoing waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls. We had the great good fortune to have our own F&WS boat for the day that allowed us unhurried access to the island. We tallied 78 species on the day's outing; our eBird checklist from the island is available online at: http://ebird.org/ebird/iss/view/checklist/S34934566.

Construction of the new dike across Jack's Creek has resumed even as the water levels have just begun to drop. That construction effort certainly kept the ducks away from the big shovel, but I don't think that it really affected the waterfowl across most of Jack's Creek. With that proviso, there has been a recent decline in waterfowl number that I personally attribute to the record-setting warm winter season. The most numerous ducks this winter have been Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, and Gadwall. While Buffleheads remain numerous, Ruddy Ducks and Gadwall were greatly reduced in number yesterday. Additionally one of the most numerous ducks in prior winters was Lesser Scaup which have been very few in number this winter. 

The North Beach has become almost completely devoid of shorebirds or, indeed, any birds, at least over our most recent surveys. We saw 1 Sanderling and 1 Piping Plover there yesterday. That was it for shorebirds on the North Beach. There were good numbers of shorebirds in the saltwater marsh oceanfront at Jack's, mostly Dunlin and Semipalmated Plovers, that included 10 Wilson's Plovers and 5 Piping Plovers (including two that were banded/flagged). 

About the same time that the red maple began budding on the island at the end of January the yellow jessamine also began blooming and, almost as quickly, dropping blooms. All over the island are carpets of dropped blooms shining like rays of sunlight reaching deeply into the shadowy understory of the maritime forest showing exactly where the vines have climbed shrubs and trees. 

A few non-avian species that we encountered included Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, fox squirrel (Old Fort Road), mosquitoes (continuing hoards hanging out in the lee of the wind), sulfur butterflies, American alligators, and pretty good shelling opportunities on the North Beach.

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

Wed 15 Mar 2017 5.0 ft high tide forecast at 10:24 AM
Thurs 16 Mar 2017 4.8 ft high tide forecast at 11:01 AM