Audubon Coastal Bird Survey: Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
By: Sabrina Cobb
It has been quite the season attempting to get out and collect valuable data on bird populations this year. Working around Hurricane Sally and the damage associated with the storm delayed and even canceled a couple of the season’s surveys. On October 16th, I was finally able to get back out and conduct the final Audubon Coastal Bird Survey at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge – Perdue Unit. The route is approximately 1.8 miles long and runs along the fine sandy beach. Fall is really starting to be felt here along the coast with morning temperatures ranging from the high 50’s to low 60’s. When I started the survey at 7:00 am the sun was just breaking the horizon setting up for a beautiful sunrise. As I approached the shore, I noticed several of the dunes that had been eroded and washed away by Hurricane Sally. The tide was low, and the water was almost crystal clear. I noticed three sharks and one decently sized ray species in the shallows as I was walking along the shoreline.
The bird activity on this day was noticeably slower than what we have observed on previous surveys. Most of the birds I observed were sanderlings running in and out of the waves probing the sand for marine invertebrates. Sanderlings are commonly found along the Alabama coast during the fall and winter seasons and breed in the arctic tundra. They are probably the most active shorebird found on the beach, usually described with only two speeds: “Run” and “Stop”.
As I neared the end of the route the sky quickly turned black as a squall moved in. The rain and wind were brief, and I was able to push through the conditions and continue. Little did I know I was in for another surprise! As I ended the route and started to turn back, I heard a very loud-sounding plane. At first, I did not see anything as the clouds were still thick above from the squall. When I finally got a glimpse of it, I noticed the plane was a Blue Angel! I stopped to observe the maneuvers of the plane for a few minutes and then got distracted by a group of brown pelicans also putting on a flight show. Did you know that brown pelicans are the only species of pelican that dive to catch fish? It is spectacular to watch these birds fly high above the water, tuck their wings in after a quick glance for a fish, and dive bomb the spot. Brown pelicans are year-round residents along the Alabama coast and have been known to breed on Gaillard Island in Mobile Bay. Other avian species I encountered along the survey included: great blue heron, double-crested cormorant, willet, osprey, royal tern, herring gull, and laughing gull. Although ACBS surveys for the fall are coming to an end, we can all continue to go to our favorite birding locations and take advantage of the nice fall weather while it lasts!