Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler Migration Revealed: The Completed Story of Longshot

I know many of you that have read about Longshot's story have been waiting anxiously to learn what the geolocator that he wore for nine months could tell us about his migration. Believe us...we have been waiting anxiously too!

The delay has mostly had to do with the mechanics of the geolocator itself (if you aren't sure what a geolocator is, read about it here). The device is designed to be read using computer software, but because of some technical issues it had to be mailed back to the U.K. so that the manufacturer could disassemble it.

Longshot, the Prothonotary Warbler that carried a "backpack" geolocator with him from July 2014 to April 2015, photographed at Beidler Forest earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Joan Eckhardt.

Technicalities aside, I am happy to announce that we have now translated the light-levels readings from the device into latitude-longitude data points, and have successfully learned the fall migration pathway and wintering location for Longshot. The map below shows, to our best knowledge, his fall migration south, leaving from Beidler Forest in late August. His trip first took him to the panhandle of Florida and from there across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba. He then continued south towards Central America, landing around the Nicaraguan/Honduran border on October 1st. From here, he traveled another 1,000 miles south to the Colombian coast, perhaps stopping in Panama along the way. His route took him between 2,000 and 2,500 miles one-way, and the overall trip took almost two months.

A Google Earth map of Longshot's migration route and wintering location. His geolocator died in February 2015, so we won't know his northern migration back to Beidler from Colombia. Map courtesy of Erik Johnson.

This is, to our knowledge, the first time in South Carolina history that the migration route and wintering location of a Prothonotary Warbler breeding in the state has ever been documented! The battery in the geolocator died on February 14th, 2015, and because of this, we unfortunately cannot determine Longshot's northern migration back to Beidler Forest. What we do know, however, is that his northern return at least covered 2,000 miles, AND that he returned to within a few feet of his breeding territory in 2014. Given that this bird weighs half an ounce (imagine the weight of two quarters), migrates at night, and was coming from another continent, this is an astonishing feat.

We've been lucky to receive some publicity on Longshot's journey. The National Audubon Society's website team has written a fascinating story on Prothonotary Warblers, including work done in Louisiana and South Carolina. Our local Post & Courier newspaper published both a print and online article that covers Longshot's story in detail. In addition, Mac Stone (former Seasonal Naturalist at Beidler Forest and current executive director of the Naturaland Trust in upstate South Carolina) wrote a featured article for Birdwatching Magazine on Longshot, and Mac was actually present the day he was recaptured to take some amazing photographs (Mac's website).

We hope that this publicity brings to light the challenges that so many migratory birds face. The conservation of birds like the Prothonotary Warbler is not tied to one state, country, or organization. These birds depend on multiple habitats that often cross hemispheres, and therefore working collectively on the breeding, migratory, and wintering grounds is the only way that we can successfully help these birds.

Want to do your part? Support organizations that work to conserve habitat for birds in North, Central, and South America. Work within your community to make sure that it is bird-friendly. Most importantly - get involved! You can do this by volunteering at a center, participating in a bird count, or joining your local Audubon chapter. We need you!

Author's Note: If it were for the help and knowledge of Norman Brunswig (retired director of Audubon SC) and Julie Hovis (biologist at Shaw Air Force Base who actually put the geolocator on Longshot), this project would never had happened. They deserve to be recognized for their tremendous contribution to this project! Thanks also to all of the volunteers who gave their time to help collect data, take pictures, and assist with the banding project.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Shorebird Migration and Piping Plover re-sighting

Shorebird migration through South Carolina has been well under way since the beginning of August as was evident after David McLean's Bulls Island waterfowl/shorebird survey on August 4th. A large number of shorebirds have begun to show up again on our beaches. It seems like there are always a few stragglers, but nesting season is practically over and shorebirds are migrating south once again. While this is a difficult time to correctly identify birds due to the high numbers of new fledglings and the majority of shorebirds in non-breeding plumage, it is also an exciting time of year because a large number of banded birds come through South Carolina! Spotting colored auxiliary bands such as engraved flags or color combinations on shorebirds adds a whole new level of fun to birding. We can learn a lot from banding projects about survival, migration, faithfulness to nest sites and mates, and local movements. This valuable information helps inform land managers and lawmakers on how to manage land used by endangered or threatened birds. So if you see a color banded shorebird, try to read the code noting the information listed here.

Piping Plover in non-breeding plumage spotted in Rattlesnake Key, FL by Pat Leary. Can you read the yellow flag?
Piping Plover in Breeding Plumage from

One species in particular that you are likely to see individuals with color bands on is the Piping Plover. Although it is a more difficult bird to re-sight due to the size of their flag, Piping Plovers are a treat to spot. There are three breeding populations of Piping Plovers in North America: a Great Lakes population, which is federally endangered, an Atlantic Coast population, and a Northern Great Plains population, which are both threatened. South Carolina’s inlets and barrier beaches provide great habitat for a number of Piping Plovers. Some only stopover on their way further south, but a good amount stay here for the winter and take advantage of mudflats at low tides and intertidal zones that are rich in insects and small aquatic invertebrates. This is a difficult bird to identify and re-sight a band. Similar in appearance to other plovers, the field marks that help me most often in identifying Piping Plovers is their overall gray bodies paired with yellow legs. In breeding plumages it is easier to discern plovers, but this time of year most birds are no longer flaunting their best spring and summer colors. Piping Plovers are banded on the breeding grounds and over the winter, but detecting color bands on these birds can be difficult due to their small size. Re-sighting requires good optics and a lot of patience. If you do get a good look at a Piping Plover, you can report Piping Plover bands by emailing For all you photographers out there, cameras with a good zoom lens are invaluable during re-sighting because you can capture a picture of the color bands without disturbing the birds.

Although small, these birds are not to be underestimated. Intruders near a Piping Plover nest have a lot coming to them. We don’t see these birds during the breeding season, but from late April through early June both males and females engage in territory defense. They can be seen walking shoulder to shoulder with Plovers from adjacent territories bobbing their heads up and down to puff up and flaunt their back feathers. They will also charge at other birds, using their beak as a weapon. One observer in Manitoba reported a Killdeer entering a Piping Plover territory where it was bitten so hard on the leg that it limped for the rest of the summer. Around this time of year though when we see them in SC, they become more communal and will spend most of their time feeding in large groups with other shorebirds. What some find most fascinating is the large range Piping Plovers can be seen during the winter. Scattered all across the East coast, during the winter, these birds have been seen as far north as Long Island, New York and as far south as the Bahamas. Perhaps some have a greater taste for tropical bugs and will travel all the way to Puerto Rico for the winter. The huge feat that is migration and selection of nesting and wintering grounds are topics of research all along the coast.

Another banded Piping Plover. Courtesy of Pat Leary.

If you take anything away from this newsletter it should be this! It holds true for both migratory Piping Plovers and those which choose to overwinter here, that too many disturbances can be deadly. Sharing the beach with these cool birds is important for their survival. Piping Plovers burn a lot of energy every time they lift off to fly; energy they are trying to store for the winter or to continue migrating south. It takes a lot of work to maintain a healthy temperature during colder months and to be vigilant against predators. It’s interesting to think about how well a person would survive in their position. Imagine you are taking a long car trip across the country, or running a very long distance, but every time you stopped to rest or eat, someone scared you away. I certainly would not survive very long.

There are other shorebird species out there that have color markers, or engraved bands or flags, such as Red Knots and American Oystercatchers, so keep your eyes out for them! Reporting re-sighted birds is a fun and educational experience and usually you can learn where else that bird has been re-sighted all over the world. Color banded shorebirds can be reported to which has an ongoing database where the public can input information about banded birds they have seen. This valuable information adds significantly to a greater understanding of the critical habitat needs of different species throughout their migratory routes. By participating as a citizen scientist and reporting the bands you see, you are doing a great service! But always keep in mind that we don’t want to love these birds to death. It is important to not flush or alter the behavior of a bird in order to read its bands. Thanks for reading and have fun re-sighting!

Have questions, comments, cool stories you want to share? for more information.

  1. SC DNR Coastal Birds webpage
  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  1. Pictures courtesty of Pat Leary and

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

American Oystercatchers on South Carolina's Coast

          This summer, Audubon South Carolina has teamed up with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and a number of other state and non-profit organizations to work on the South Carolina Shorebird Project. One of our target species for monitoring was the American Oystercatcher.

Two adult American Oystercatchers cooling off in the surf. Notice that the closer one has an auxiliary band.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

Oystercatchers are common to seacoasts in temperate to tropical parts of the world, and the American Oystercatcher is one of two species of oystercatchers that breed in North America. They nest along most of South Carolina’s less human populated beaches and as far north as Massachusetts. This species, deemed a “Species of High Concern” by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, is fascinating and easily identifiable by their long orange bill and bright yellow eyes among all the “peeps” that also inhabit SC beaches. They lay their eggs directly on the ground in well camouflaged scrapes in the sand and decorate the edges of their scrape with little bits of shell. South Carolina has approximately 400 pairs of nesting Oystercatchers.
As American Oystercatcher nesting season came to an end, we were amazed at the difference in the number of fledgling chicks on various beaches in South Carolina. Our Oystercatcher friends have a lot to contend with during nesting season. There are many factors that can affect a nest’s success (meaning if eggs hatch or not). High tides can wash over nests and scatter or damage eggs, their nests can be disturbed causing damage to eggs, and increases in humans’ real estate decreases the real estate available to birds. Additionally, predators such as raccoons, dogs, and even other birds will opportunistically eat Oystercatcher eggs and chicks if the parents are off their nest. American Oystercatchers are very finicky birds because when something they perceive nearby as potentially predatory, their strategy is to get off the nest and attempt to draw away the predator. This can be an effective but risky strategy because it exposes eggs to deadly summer heat and keen-eyed predators. This is why it is vital to be mindful of nesting areas and respect posted areas during your visits to the beach. Even a dog on a leash or under voice command can scare parents off their nest from a great distance away.

What a cutie! An American Oystercatcher chick waits for mom or dad to bring back food.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

When chicks hatch, it only takes 24-48 hours before they are up, running, and hiding from predators in wrack and beach brush. Then, after 35 days, the chicks can fly, yet still depend on their parents for food for at least two months after hatching.
American Oystercatchers are the only shorebird in South Carolina that feed on shellfish and need to teach their chicks how to hunt and feed. They are named for their distinctive bill which is built like an oyster shucking knife. As the tide lowers, it exposes oysters allowing the Oystercatcher to take that chance to slip its beak in, open the oyster and steal the oyster meat. Adults will bring back single oysters to their chicks to show them how to use their beak! Maybe the term “bird brain” should be a positive one.

Score! This Oystercatcher successfully grabbed a chunk of oyster out of its shell.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

So while you’re out enjoying the sun, salty air, and fascinating wildlife, remember to share the beach with our feathered friends. If you see anything you want to share with us, take a picture and tell us about it! We love to hear your stories. The most interesting photos are the ones where birds are acting natural, unaware of your presence, not photos where birds are flying away because they were flushed, or staring at the camera from their nests.

Have questions, comments, cool stories you want to share? Email for more information.