By: Sabrina Cobb
It was a chilly winter morning on January 14th when Olivia and I met Captain Charlie Gray at Dauphin Island Marina for the first winter Audubon Coastal Bird Survey of 2021, on Little Dauphin Island. Captain Charlie is a charter boat captain on Dauphin Island. He will be helping us access our nearshore islands this year and we are very excited to be working with him. We boarded the 20-foot boat at 6:30 am during perfect weather conditions. The water was almost completely flat, and the sunrise had just begun displaying beautiful hues of pinks and oranges behind a partly cloudy sky.
Charlie ran down to the eastern end of Little Dauphin Island where we hopped off and began our 3-mile-long survey. We hadn’t surveyed Little Dauphin Island since the breeding season, and we immediately noticed the severe erosion that occurred this past hurricane season. Hurricane Sally removed a ~0.3-mile stretch of sand along our survey route, so Charlie had to pick us up after we finished the first half mile on foot and drop us off after the new cut in the island. We did not observe many birds during the first half mile of the survey; however, there were hundreds of double-crested cormorants seen flying from the eastern most point offshore.
Unlike the first half mile stretch which was entirely composed shell, sand, and some sea oats, the second section of our route contained remnants of intertidal marsh, maritime forest, and a decreasing shoreline. This diversity in micro-habitat appeals to more habitat-specific species, and as a result this section had more avian diversity. Using our binoculars, we were able to see five great blue herons stealthily stalking prey in the intertidal marsh areas, as well as four snowy egrets! Because we did not want to disturb or disrupt what is left of the marsh ecosystem on Little Dauphin, we identified and recorded birds that we heard but couldn’t see deep within the vegetation.
One species that is easy to identify by sound in marsh habitat is the clapper rail. As we were walking along the shore, we heard a couple of these birds calling, forming the traditional clapper rail “duet” of “kek-kek-kek”. Another species that is easily identified by sound and can be observed in cattails are red-winged black birds. We observed a flock of these birds calling “conk-a-leee” and flying back and forth in what is left of the trees on Little Dauphin. During the winter season in coastal Alabama, we get several species of songbirds that are sometimes seen during our surveys. During this survey, we saw several swamp sparrows and one song sparrow. Swamp sparrows have rusty color wings with some thick black feathers on the back and no streaking to the breast whereas the song sparrow is more neutral in color and has dark streaking on the breast. Another occasional species of sparrow that our volunteers have observed on the island lately is the savannah sparrow. They are a more mottled looking bird with short streaks on the breast that do not extend all the way down. They are easy to identify by their yellow patch right above the eyes, as if the bird is wearing yellow eye shadow. As to be expected we had no shortage of yellow-rumped warblers during our survey! They are probably the most common warbler species you will see in the south during the winter season and they are often referred to as “butter-butts,” which refers to the bright yellow patch above the tail.
During our survey we also observed three species of raptors, a northern harrier hawk, a red-tailed hawk, and an adult bald eagle! Once we made it to the end of the second section, which also was cut through by hurricane damage, we had to make our way back to the start for a safer boat landing to be picked up. In order to survey the last mile of the most western section of Little Dauphin Island, our boat captain had to drop us off near an oyster shell bank that runs under the bridge to Dauphin Island and is only exposed during extremely low tides like we experienced that day. Usually there is a decent size group of loafing birds at the western end of Little Dauphin; however, they were likely taking advantage of the low tide and foraging elsewhere. We did see a couple of red-breasted mergansers and bufflehead ducks foraging near the point, as well as a banded piping plover foraging the intertidal oyster shell area, as we were looking for loafing birds. This plover was was banded as an adult near Yankton, South Dakota, and was first documented on Dauphin Island in January 2013 by Drew Haffenden!
Make sure to stay tuned for more of our 2021 Winter ACBS adventures. If you are interested in contributing your ACBS survey stories with us for this blog please email Sabrina Cobb or Olivia Morpeth.