By: Sabrina Cobb
Our Science & Conservation Director paid a visit to the coast during the first week of March in hopes of banding two of our focal species, the snowy plover and the American oystercatcher.
On March 3rd, Alabama Audubon staff and volunteer Andrew Haffenden met coastal biologists from Audubon Mississippi at the public beach access point on Dauphin Island to begin the early morning search for snowy plovers! Unexpectedly, the weather on Dauphin Island that morning was not favorable for finding active birds. It was a chilly start in the 40’s with winds gusting upwards of 15 mph. The team split to accommodate room availability on the UTV leaving the others to patrol the beach behind them. Once the group on the UTV had made a through investigation of Pelican Island and the western stretch of the public beach, everyone concluded the birds were not present or were hunkered down out of sight.
Another area snowy plovers have been known to congregate and have historically nested is on the Far West End of Dauphin Island. We decided to try our luck on the approximately six-mile stretch of beach. We started the journey by following the beach until we located an area that recently had snowy plover activity. Once we approached the location, everyone spread out on foot to thoroughly investigate the area. During our search we did observe a couple of other coastal species foraging and loafing including four piping plovers, one of which was banded! Piping plovers are winter visitors to the Alabama coast and will soon be returning to their breeding grounds near the Great Lakes and interior parts of the United States.
Once we made it to the end of the route, we finally observed one skittish snowy plover. The bird’s behavior made it difficult to set up any of the noose mats we had brought along to capture it for banding. It is usually easier to capture birds when they are in small groups and/or displaying territorial behavior. Snowy plovers in Alabama will usually start forming pairs in March but as a species have been known to start breeding activity as early as February. On our way back, we saw another snowy plover that seemed to be displaying the same behavior as the previous one, as it did not appear territorial.
To make the best of our time spent in the field, we decided to go through the steps with how to apply color bands on snowy plovers using a Q-tip as a substitute for a plover leg. Snowy plovers are banded by researchers along the Gulf to understand their short-distance movements, breeding pair success, and winter loafing/foraging habitat preferences.
We wrapped up the day by another quick check of Pelican Island and some special training on setting up and deploying a “whoosh” net! The net is rectangular in shape and consists of a fine mesh. The top two corners are staked into the ground and the other two are each attached to bungee cord that is also staked into the ground on the opposite ends. The end attached to the net is placed over these two metal rods and a tether line is secured with a pin on each. When the net is ready to be deployed the field biologist will pull on a line attached to each pin which will release the tension on the bungee cords and shoot the net over the birds capturing them. These nets are often used when trying to capture multiple small to medium size shorebirds during banding events. Having a net set up such as this increases efficiency and reduces the redeployment time and effort for multiple tries.