Audubon Coastal Bird Survey: Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
By: Sabrina Cobb
The arctic air that was brought to the Alabama coast yesterday did not stop us from conducting our final winter ACBS survey at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge- Perdue Unit. We started the survey at 11:00 a.m., a little later in the day than our usual surveys to allow the temperature to rise above freezing. When we started the survey, it was mostly cloudy and with a slight wind out of the northwest.
As we started down the beach, we noticed several northern gannets foraging offshore. Northern gannets are a pelagic species typically found foraging offshore along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts of the United States during their non-breeding season. They have several established breeding colonies along the coast of eastern Canada, including parts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador. Like most seabirds, northern gannets are piscivorous and catch fish by diving – sometimes as deep as 70 feet! They are also great swimmers and can use their wings and webbed feet to help maneuver them through the water. Northern gannets are slightly smaller than a brown pelican but are one of our larger seabird visitors. Adult birds are mostly white with dark wingtips and a yellow wash to the head. Juvenile birds are typically an overall chocolate brown with white speckling.
Another diving bird that winters along the Alabama coast that we encountered during our survey was the double-crested cormorant. These birds are overall brown-black with a small patch of yellow skin on the face. Unlike most seabirds, double-crested cormorants lack the oils necessary to waterproof their feathers, so you will often see these birds loafing with their wings spread out to dry their feathers after a swim.
As we continued down the beach, we found several sanderlings foraging along the shoreline with a handful of willets, as well as a group of loafing snowy plovers! Of course, when the snowy plovers spotted us moving towards them, they began to run about. We noticed one of the banded plovers was missing its left leg; we were later informed by a coastal biologist that works at the refuge that this was likely the result of an interaction with a ghost crab! Olivia and I had spotted this same bird last fall and thought the bird just had the leg tucked, refusing to lower it as that is sometimes the case with shorebirds.
This survey completed our 2021 winter ACBS season, and thanks to all our wonderful volunteers we were able to collect data from eight locations in Baldwin County and ten locations in Mobile County! Volunteers and staff documented 81 different species in Baldwin County and 61 species in Mobile County. There were 22,239 individual sightings this season across both counties! Stay tuned as we transition into the upcoming Spring ACBS and breeding season!