Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was designated in 1978 and named for the bay where thousands of wading birds roost and nest on certain mangrove islands. A lot of other birds also rely on this area for survival. Reserve staff and volunteers keep tabs on these bird populations as an indicator of estuarine health.
I recently had the pleasure of joining our shorebird monitoring intern Alli, volunteer captain Larry and another staff member on the monthly shorebird survey. We got an early start from the Ten Thousand Islands field station, near Goodland, so that we could take advantage of the tide and get back by lunch.
Our first destination was the Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area just south of Cape Romano, this is one of the sand bars in our area that is posted and closed every spring and summer to afford thousands of beach-nesting birds the best opportunity to reproduce with the least amount of disturbance from human activity. These areas are also important for wintering shorebirds.
High tide is the best time to get close to these shallow shoals, and it is also the best time to count birds. Thousands of shorebirds birds feed on sand bars and mudflats exposed at low tide, but at high tide when their buffet is closed, they rest in concentrated flocks on patches of dry sand.
Alli set up her scope to get a closer look at the birds on the other side of the sand bar. While we kept a safe distance from the resting flocks, we were greeted by a pair of Wilson’s plovers whose warning calls indicated that we were entering their territory. These year-round residents would soon be laying eggs in shallow scrapes they make in the sand.
Nearby, a small, mixed flock was feeding in a frenzy, running in and out as the tide lapped the shore. Sanderlings and ruddy turnstones were gobbling up what may have been a cache of horseshoe crab eggs, an important energy source for migrating birds all along the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. Sanderlings and ruddy turnstones both spend winters here, but will soon be departing for their summer breeding grounds in the high arctic-more than 3,000 miles away!
As Alli recorded her sightings she was excited to see some birds with colored bands and flags on their legs. The high-powered scope enables her to read the unique letter and number combination that is unique to each bird in a research study. She will later track down details about these birds, such as when and where they were banded, and her report about their current location will help provide that researcher with important clues to the birds’ migration patterns and life history.
Our next stop was Morgan Bay on the west side of Cape Romano. As we approached Morgan Pass, I could see something big and white covering the mudflat on the inside of the bay. This out-of-place snow drift was actually a flock of white pelicans. Their large size and sheer number was almost blinding in the bright sun. Alli’s scope confirmed that the flock numbered over 120 individuals. With a wingspan of 114 inches, white pelicans are the second largest birds in North America: only the California condor is larger. Seeing these majestic birds is a special treat as this is another species that breeds in central and northern North America each summer.
The pelicans excited me, but Alli was focused on counting the seemingly-endless mass of tiny brown shorebirds, collectively referred to as “peeps,” that shared the flat with the white giants. Here we saw western sandpipers, dunlin, short-billed dowitchers, red knots and three species of plover: semi-palmated, Wilson’s and piping plovers, which are listed as threatened in Florida but endangered in other parts of the U.S.
Alli was very excited when she spotted two piping plovers with banded legs that she had seen previously. “Agatha” and “Finch” were banded in 2015 at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. She also spotted T4N, which is a sanderling that was banded at a migration stopover site in Delaware in spring 2015. This was the first time it’s been seen outside of Delaware – now we know where it spends the winter! KP5 is a red knot with a very faded band. It was banded in 2007 on Sanibel and has been seen in Florida almost yearly since then. 65T was banded in South Carolina in 2012 and appears to winter in Southwest Florida. It has been seen in Massachusetts and New Jersey during migration. In all, Alli counted 4,567 individual birds of 17 different species.
If you enjoy seeing these birds along our shores, always respect posted areas and keep your distance to avoid flushing them unnecessarily. It’s not just polite, it’s a matter of survival.
Renee Wilson is Communications Coordinator at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. She has been a Florida resident since 1986, and joined the staff at the Reserve in 2000.