Birding Beyond our Backyard – Bears Bluff Fish Hatchery

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Located on Wadmalaw Island, the Bears Bluff NFH has a self-guided tour our group will take around the perimeter of the 31 acre facility. We will not only see examples of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s natural habitat but also see work being accomplished by staff at BBNFH. SIB Leaders will take our participants across a previously impounded estuarine area which is naturally reverting back into coastal marshland as well as a freshwater pond where birds, turtles and alligators are often visible. Two boardwalks offer a unique perspective and will allow guests “to get in the marsh without getting dirty.” The self-guided tour offers visitors the opportunity to learn about the estuarine ecosystem while experiencing some of this area’s most breathtaking scenery. Opportunities abound for bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts, so bring your binoculars and pack a lunch!

Join SIB Executive Committee Member Nancy Brown for this walk in search of seabirds, wading birds, passerines and birds of prey. Be sure to bring binoculars, camera, hats, sunscreen bug repellant, snacks and water. Pack a lunch and stay longer to enjoy what the Bears Bluff NFH has to offer!

Friday, June 7, 2018 7:30 am – 12:00 pm
Beyond our Backyard – Bears Bluff Fish Hatchery
Location: Meet at SIRE parking lot and car pool (approximately a 45 minute drive)
Max: 20
Cost None for members; $5 donation for guests
Learn more about Bears Bluff NFH: https://www.fws.gov/bearsbluff/index.html

If you are not yet a 2019 SIB member, you must first become a member by following the instructions on our website: https://seabrookislandbirders.org/contact/join-sib/ or we request a $5 donation to SIB.

Once you are a member, please register no later than Wednesday June 5 , 2019. All registrants will receive a confirmation letter the day prior the event.

If you have additional questions about the program, please contact us by sending an email to: SeabrookIslandBirders@gmail.com

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The Painted Bunting – America’s Most Beautiful Bird

Look up in the sky – it’s a jewel, a small parrot, no it’s SUPERBIRD!

Painted Bunting-1 CMoore
Male Painted Bunting – C Moore

Without a doubt one of the most beautiful and colorful birds on Seabrook Island or anywhere else is the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris).  Look for this small to medium sized multi colored finch (about five inches long with an eight-inch wingspan) at your bird feeder and around the edges of dense brush (such as wax myrtles) and thick woodlands.

Painted Buntings nest and breed here from the middle of April through September. Some may stay throughout the winter but most of our birds go south to Florida and to the northwest Caribbean islands. These birds are part of the eastern population that occurs along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida. A second western population breeds in northern Mexico to northern Texas and winters in south-west Mexico.

You will have no problem in identifying a mature male Painted Bunting with its vivid blues, greens, yellows and reds that make it look like a small parrot. The male’s head is iridescent blue, its throat and underside are bright red, its back is a brilliant green fading to lighter green on the wings. Females and one-year-old males are a uniform yellowish-green color with a slightly lighter eye ring.

These magnificent birds spend most of their time in thick brush and are often seen along woodland edges. They forage on the ground and in shrubs and are primarily seed eaters. They are frequent visitors to Seabrook Island bird feeders and seem to prefer white millet. Although they are basically seed eaters while nesting, they catch, eat and feed insects to their young.

They are fast flyers, darting here and there and are difficult to follow. Males are extremely aggressive and territorial toward other males and often fight over a spot at bird feeders. Their song is a very distinctive continuous series of short high-pitched notes lasting about 2 seconds. Males may sing 9 to 10 songs a minute establishing their territory during spring.

Male Painted buntings may have several mates and females may raise 2 to 4 broods throughout the summer. The nest is built in a bush or tree and is a deep cup of grass, weeds and leaves with a lining of finer grass or hair. Females lay 3 to 5 eggs, incubate them for 11 to 12 days and the young leave the nest in another 12 to 14 days. Males do little in raising the young and frequently are out looking for another mate. A Florida tagging study documented one Painted bunting living in the wild for more than 12 years. 

Male birds, because of their bright plumage, are caught and sold as caged birds in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In the late 1800s, John Audubon reported that thousands of Painted Buntings were being shipped to Europe from the United States. Breeding bird surveys by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the Painted Bunting population has declined by 55% over the past 30 years.

Seabrook Island residents and their guests are fortunate to have one of America’s most beautiful birds. Keep in mind that males only develop their brilliant multi colored plumage in their second year. Most of the Painted Buntings you will see will be the rather nondescript uniform greenish females and first-year males. The best way of spotting a Painted Bunting is to become familiar with their distinctive song, and once you have identified where they are, watch for a flash of red, blue, yellow and green and have your camera ready.

Should you be lucky enough to find a painted bunting nest I would love to know about it. I have never seen the nest although 2 to 4 pairs nest in by backyard each year. What fun it would be to follow and photograph these beautiful birds raising their young.

We hope you will join the Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) for an evening program focused on our special bird on Wednesday May 29, 2019 in the Live Oak Room at the Lake House.  Dr. James Rotenberg will present: “The Conservation Status of the Atlantic Coast population of Painted Bunting,” with the social (wine and snacks) beginning at 7:00 pm and the lecture starting at 7:30 pm.  Sign up to attend here: https://seabrookislandbirders.org/sib-evening-programs/

Article & Photos Submitted by: Charley Moore                                                                                                                                         

Spring on North Beach – Red Knots and more!

Red Knot, North Beach

Spring is an amazing and important time for our Seabrook Island shorebirds! Migrating Red Knots are here in growing numbers. After wintering with us, Piping Plovers are heading north to breed. Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and other shorebirds are getting ready to mate and possibly nest on North Beach. It’s a time to enjoy the splendor of our shorebird residents and guests. And to be extra careful when on the beach – give them space to rest, feed, and nest, and follow our beach rules for dogs.

Our SC DNR and USFWS partners have been active monitoring the Red Knot flock to plan for their banding and research. We’re seeing flocks of 300 to 1,500 feeding and resting all along the shore – left of Boardwalk 1, on the sandbars, in the Critical Habitat, at the point, and back on the old inlet. There was a recent sighting of 4,000 knots on the far end of North Beach!

The knots are turning into their beautiful reddish breeding colors. It’s a spectacle when they fly, a large flock darting through the sky with a tint of red as they turn! From late March to early May they move between Seabrook, Kiawah, and Deveaux Bank. In past years Aija and I have seen over 5,000 knots on North Beach at their peak in late April. SC DNR has concluded we have the largest single flock of Red Knots on the East Coast!

Red Knot flock of 300, North Beach Critical Habitat

Red Knot population has declined 85% since 1980, and they’re a “Federally Threatened” species. Knots have the longest migration of any bird, 18,000 miles round trip from the tip of South America to the Arctic where they breed. From SC DNR’s research and geolocator data retrieved on Seabrook and nearby beaches, they’ve determined that 2/3 of our Red Knot flock migrate directly from here to the Arctic to breed, and do not make the usual stop at the Delaware Bay. This discovery makes Seabrook Island a critical stop for the knots before their remaining 3,000-mile journey to the Arctic.

Red Knot flock. North Beach point

To learn more about SC DNR Red Knot research, visit http://www.dnr.sc.gov/news/2018/jun/jun7_shorebirds.html

Mark in blue shirt, Seabrook Island SC DNR Red Knot Stewardship

Mark Andrews, a Seabrook Island Birders’ member and Seabrook Island resident, is working on a new project with SC DNR this spring to help protect Red Knots. Mark is spending considerable time on North Beach, observing the size and location of the Red Knot flock, and educating Seabrook residents and guests about the knots. Mark’s project is to promote awareness to help our Red Knots rest and refuel for their long migration north to breed. Look for Mark on North Beach and learn about the knots!

Piping Plover flock, high tide resting in Critical Habitat, soon to head north to breed

In April we say bon voyage to our Piping Plovers (PIPL), some having wintered with us since late July. We’re seeing the last of the PIPL now, but in larger flocks of 12 or more as more southern wintering PIPL are stopping here as they head north. Piping Plovers breed in the North Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Great Plains regions. Atlantic and Great Plains PIPL are Federally Threatened, Great Lakes PIPL are Federally Endangered.

This tiny bird, now with a dark breeding color breast band, can be anywhere on North Beach – left or right of Boardwalk 1, in the dogs off lead area, feeding in the Critical Habitat low tide mud flats, or resting in the high tide rack. They need our help for the final bit of rest before heading north. The Great Lakes banded PIPL pictured above, in the flock of 12 PIPL we recently spotted, is one of only 70 breeding pairs remaining from that region.

What’s up with the yellow SC DNR nesting signs in the Critical Habitat? Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers are beginning to mate and hopefully nest! Look up into the sky and you’ll see and hear the racket of the small white terns chasing each other with fish. From a distance, look for the Least Tern courting behavior either inside the nesting area or on the shore. It’s a hoot. The male presents a gift of fish to a female, female considers to accept or reject, and like with all guys, she will often reject the gift and dart away, leaving the male – fish still in mouth – looking very foolish.

If you look carefully in the nesting area, not getting too close to signs, you may spot a couple of Wilson’s Plovers, at times chasing each other with aggressive mating behavior. Or possibly hunkered down in some rack in the dunes. Last June, Aija and I spotted Least Tern juveniles and Wilson’s Plover chicks in this habitat. A first for us in 12 years of birding and photography on North Beach! Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers are SC Threatened Species, so they need our help to nest and thrive.

Our resident pair of American Oystercatchers, one banded U5, may also be hopefully mating, along with others. We’ve been seeing U5 and its mate on North Beach for many years, they’re old friends! SC DNR thinks the Oystercatchers have nested on North Beach, although we haven’t observed nests or chicks. We’ve also been seeing the Willets in aggressive mating behavior, and they have nested here too.

Lots of activity in the Spring! Please make a difference when you’re on North Beach by following these simple steps:

  1. Keep away from birds.  When you see a flock, large or small, give them space.
  2. Don’t force the birds to fly. How close to a bird is too close?  If birds react — calling loudly or taking flight — step back immediately.  A good rule is to stay at least 50 yards away, or half the length of a football field.
  3. Respect posted nesting and feeding areas.
  4. Follow Seabrook’s beach rules for dogs. Shorebirds will be anywhere on the beach including the dogs off leash zone. Please don’t have your dog chase any birds! Our shorebirds’ survival is not a game.
  5. Be a good steward. Learn about our shorebirds and their needs and share the word. Shorebirds are one of the many natural treasures of Seabrook for us to understand, enjoy, and most importantly protect.

Note that the Town of Seabrook, working with USFWS and SC DNR, is in the process of improving our signs. The large buoys that washed away have been reordered. These will mark to start of the dogs off lead area, and the start of the Critical Habitat/no dog zone. There are temporary signs up now at the start of the Critical Habitat until the buoys arrive and can be installed. April is such a critical month for shorebirds, and our signs are missing or faded. So some immediate clarification was needed.

Also, please remember that the Critical Habitat line extends from the No Dogs metal sign at the high tide line straight out to the ocean. The beach and sandbars continuing past this visual line are part of the Critical Habitat and no dog zone. This is especially important in Red Knot season as knots will rest and feed on the sandbars that can be accessible at low tide.

So, when walking North Beach, look around you, observe and enjoy these incredible shorebirds. Just like 20 Seabrook Island Birders did on a recent bird walk on North Beach, tallying 40 species!

Article and Photos by Ed Konrad

SIB’s Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest Trip

The wonderful presentation by Matt Johnson on March 27, 2019, on the Prothonotary Warbler inspired Seabrook Island Birders to join him on a walk. On April 11, 2019, ten SIB members joined Matt for a two hour tour (which became a three hour tour) of the boardwalk through the Four Hole Swamp in the Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest.

SIB Beidler 4 Jackie Brooks

It was a busy day at Beidler with our group, one from the Sierra Club, and a class of elementary school students. Matt and the staff did an excellent job of keeping the groups separate so we could enjoy the many sights and sounds.

The forest, essentially untouched by human hands consists of tall, stately trees. A raised boardwalk snakes through the wet environment of towering bald cypress, black gum, and the occasional pumpkin ash and red maple.

Mayfly

In addition to birds, the swamp provides a home for an array of reptiles and amphibians. Remarkably, because the water flows through the swamp, pesky insects are practically non-existent. A mayfly is a great indicator of clean water.

While the 32 species of birds that were identified were the focus of the day, our attention frequently wandered to everything and anything we could find. We had no clue where to look first.

We had not gone far before Matt spotted a cottonmouth sitting on a log. It proved to be the first of three. In addition we saw a brown water snake, a cottonmouth mimic.

At another spot, a palm sized fisher spider gave a brief show before dashing out of sight before anyone could get a picture. Later, a smaller one sat on the walkway rail giving everyone who wanted to a chance to study it carefully.

Also seen were several broad headed and five-lined skinks.

Matt also pointed out some man-made features—a dugout canoe and a camp site—that the staff had added to provide an educational opportunity to teach about the Maroon culture—escaped slaves that lived by hiding in the swamp.

The highlight of the day were the birds. As often happens in a tall forest, some of the birds, like the very vocal and secretive hooded warbler, proved difficult to see. We had nice and clear songs from birds like Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireo, but never got our eyes on them.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Swallow-tailed Kite only gave some of the group a good look.

That said, other birds performed. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron posed for some pictures.

The Prothonotary Warblers lived up to expectation. We would see multiple birds some very close. Matt pointed out several unbanded birds and some birds with a whole string of bracelets.  We also spotted some exploring potential nesting sites and carrying nesting material.

The Prothonotary Warblers lived up to expectation. We would see multiple birds some very close. Matt pointed out several unbanded birds and some birds with a whole string of bracelets.  We also spotted some exploring potential nesting sites and carrying nesting material.

Michael Audette captured a series of pictures of a spider walking up and over a Prothonotary Warbler, a mistake because it ended up in the Prothonotary Warbler.

As we returned towards the visitor center, Matt commented that the only target bird we did not see or hear was the Barred Owl. Remarkably, within seconds after being teased by Michael about the money back guarantee, Matt spotted one only about 30 feet off the boardwalk and just above eye level. A great last bird for the day.

Many of the participants ate a picnic lunch with Matt where we talked more about the unique wonders of the Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest. What a delightful way to end another successful trip.

Article written by: Bob Mercer

Photographs credits:

  • Michael Audette’s Barred Owl, all of the Prothonotary Warblers, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
  • Jackie Brooks’ Yellow-billed Cuckoo, mayfly, 5 lined skink, people, and maroon camp implements.
  • Bob Mercer’s cottonmouth, spiders, and broad-headed skink.

Easter Parade on North Beach

North Beach Spring Plumage

The last few days, Ed and I have been birding North Beach. We were delighted to see that many of our wintering or migrating shorebirds were changing into their Easter finery! I grew up in a house of modest means, but one thing I could be sure of every Easter was a new dress for church. Made me start to hum the old song that many of you may remember, Easter Parade. I remembered most of the words, but was struck by the line “the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.” Huh??? What the heck is a rotogravure?  

So I went to my old friend Google and found that it is the color magazine section of a newspaper…remember back in the day when we actually read print news? So here were some of the birds on our beach today, changing into their breeding colors! They could  be featured in the rotogravure, with Ed the photographer, snapping them. 

Black-bellied Plover, North Beach

Black-bellied Plovers…turning from their drab gray winter plumage. Many of them mottled, heading toward a full black belly. 

Dunlin…turning from their drab, gray winter duds, many with darkening bellies, soon to become full black bellies and more rusty backs. 

Red Knot, North Beach

Red Knots… well on their way from drab gray to a beautiful rust color. 

Ruddy Turnstones…putting on their little black vests with rusty backs, from their drab brown winter sweaters. 

Piping Plovers…many in breeding colors with their full black breast bands and forehead spots, with two-tone bills. The Piping Plovers we saw today on North Beach are very likely the last of our wintering guests. They’re headed north to breed, and will be back in late July.

Easter Parade, indeed! 

Article by Aija Konrad, Photos by Ed Konrad

A Very Personal Seabrook Island Piping Plover “Life Story”

At the March 13, 2019 SC DNR Shorebird/Seabird workshop, Melissa Chapman from U.S. Fish & Wildlife discussed sharing a bird’s “life story” as a better way of connecting people to birds. Make it personal vs. just the data. Here’s a good example of a very personal Seabrook Island Piping Plover “life story.”

Some background: When Aija and I spot banded Piping Plovers (PIPL) on North Beach, I take photos and we send to our biologist friends we’ve gotten to know: Alice Van Zoeren (Great Lakes Region), Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, University of Minnesota; Meryl Friedrich (Atlantic U.S. Region), Virginia Tech Shorebird Program; and Dr. Cherri Gratto-Trevor (Atlantic Canada Region), Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Centre, Saskatoon Canada.

Alice, Meryl, and Cherri like to get immediate feedback and photos on where their PIPLs are during wintering, and they reply back to us with interesting information on the PIPL’s travels. Aija and I have developed email relationships with these researchers through the years. We even met Alice two years ago when we visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in MI, where the Great Lakes Region PIPLs breed. A fascinating visit!

So, here’s the story… We spotted and reported to Alice this Great Lakes Area banded PIPL in November 2018 and again March 2019. Orange flag means Great Lakes.

UL Silver LL Green - UR Orange Flag LR Green Red - Seabrook Island Mar 27 2019 -0459
UL Silver LL Green – UR Orange Flag LR Green Red – Seabrook Island Mar 27 2019 – Ed Konrad

UL Silver LL Green - UR Orange Flag LR GreenRed - Seabrook Island Nov 9 2018 -2993
UL Silver LL Green – UR Orange Flag LR GreenRed – Seabrook Island Nov 9 2018 – Ed Konrad

Alice wrote back this week “This plover spent the winter on Seabrook. You met her before during November 2018. We don’t know when or where she hatched since she wasn’t banded as a chick, but she bred in 2018 at Grand Marais, MI and was banded at that time. She spent August 2018 at Cumberland Island, GA and then settled for the rest of the winter at Seabrook. She’ll soon be headed to the upper peninsula. We’re expecting our first plover at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore any day now!”

So here’s the point. Great Lakes Region Piping Plovers are Federally Endangered. The Great Lakes were once home to nearly 800 pairs of Piping Plovers. Today, about 75 nesting pairs remain in the Great Lakes population. Just 75 nesting pairs. This tiny banded Piping Plover bred and then flew 1000 miles south to Georgia in August. She hung around Georgia awhile until heading 150 miles north to Seabrook Island. Good choice little PIPL! Upon arriving last November, maybe she thought “this looks like a cool place to be, lots of space for foraging, big wide beach, protected critical habitat, the people seem friendly, they care about the birds and SC DNY and USF&WL are involved, they try hard to follow the dog rules. I think I’ll stay for the winter!”

So now, with our help, this little gal is about to head north to breed again. And hopefully she’ll be successful, as she’s so important as one of only 75 Great Lakes female PIPLs needed to keep this endangered population going.Pretty cool. Well done Seabrook Island for helping her rest and get strong for her long trip back north to bred! If she comes back to winter with us later this this year, maybe we should give her a name. Any ideas?

Here’s the Great Lakes Piping Plover website about the great work Alice does: https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/

Article and photos submitted by Ed Konrad

Songs of Spring

We published this blog in 2017, but felt it was worth repeating!  We hope you agree!

Below are the answers to the nine birds we challenged you to identify on Friday. (Birds with the blue hyperlink will open a previous SIB Blog for that bird)

How did you do?  If you answered:

1 right = Hatchling
2-4 right = Fledgling
5-7 right =Matured
8-9 right = True Bird Nerd

A common question is, “What is your favorite season?” Once again this year, after spending warm days golfing and biking, I still agree with my answer from two years ago – SPRING! My passion for birding is growing exponentially with my ability to identify birds, especially by hearing them. Birds make chip and call notes all year long, but many only sing in the spring when they are trying to attract a mate or defend their territory. With migration now in full swing, I love the challenge of identifying songs I haven’t heard since last spring! And best of all, listening to birds can be done while walking, biking, hanging out in the yard and golfing!  In fact, I even bird while watching golf on TV!  Try it today if you are watching The Masters – I bet you’ll hear many of the same birds you hear on Seabrook Island.

If you’ve gotten this far, then maybe you are interested in how to improve your skills!  In researching this article I realized there are a number of great resources that can help us on our quest!  The first article, Bird ID Skills: How to Learn Bird Songs and Calls, includes five tips for beginning birders:  Watch & Listen, Learn from an Expert, Listen to Recordings, Say it to Yourself and Details – Break it Apart.  As you listen to a song, evaluate the rhythm, pitch, repetition and tone.  Some people find using Mnemonics (like the Carolina Wren’s “Germany Germany“) helpful while others may prefer the visual of a Spectogram of the sound (like the Northern Parula’s below).

northern parula song spectrogram

The second article I found helpful is How To Listen To Bird Song—Tips And Examples From The Warbler Guide.  Although this article focuses specifically on warblers, it provides a common language we can use to describe bird songs like the song quality (buzzy, trilled, clear), pitch trend (rising, falling, steady) and number of sections.

If you are interested in improving your identification of birds using their sounds, try one of these two websites to play fun games to challenge and learn bird songs.

Larkwire
All About Bird Song

Finally, some birders may use their phone to listen to a bird’s song/call while in the field or even to attract a bird in order to see it.  Before attempting to do this, you should understand the proper method for using playback and the pro’s and con’s by reading this article:  Proper use of playback in birding (Sibley).

We hope you are inspired to start increasing the number of birds you can identify by sound!

Submitted by Nancy Brown
Photos by Hider, Konrad, Moore & Brown