Coastal Conservation

Record number of American Oystercatchers tallied along Florida's Big Bend Coastline

Pat and Doris Leary are avid naturalists and conservationists from Fernandina Beach, FL, who volunteer their time and substantial skills to survey coastal waterbirds in Northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and Florida’s Big Bend. In 2015, they received Audubon's prestigious Guy Bradley Award for their significant contributions to knowledge about the life histories of imperiled and non-imperiled birds in Florida.

Over a four-day period in mid-November 2016, Pat and Doris Leary counted flock after flock of American Oystercatchers resting on oyster rakes, islands, and jetties spanning from Horseshoe Beach in Dixie County southward to Duke Power's rock jetty in Citrus County. They photographed each flock and used a spotting scope to search every pair of bird legs in each flock carefully, looking for color-coded leg bands that would identify the origin of each banded bird.

What they found: an astounding record total of exactly 2000 individual American Oystercatchers! And 194 birds - almost 10% -  carried uniquely coded leg bands identifying their respective nesting sites!  

The combination of alpha-numeric code orientation, lettering color, and background band color provides a unique identifer for each banded Oystercatcher that can be traced to the date and location where the bird was banded.  Learning the fall and winter whereabouts of birds banded as flightless chicks is exciting news for the researchers that banded them. It's also rewarding for Pat and Doris Leary to learn the band origins and to realize the high value of the hours they invest and the miles they traverse to provide such vital information about the life history of one of North America's most iconic birds. 

After reviewing the band codes and colors, Pat and Doris determined that the Oystercatchers originated in eight states: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. 

The Big Bend coastline habitats where these large flocks of American Oystercatchers and other migratory shorebirds overwinter are classified as Global Important Bird Areas. The shallow waters of this region are food-rich and studded with oyster rakes, mudflats, mangrove islands, and small, sand-bordered islands with low vegetation on which birds can rest between meals. 

Unfortunately, as Florida's resident populations grows and boat-based tourism has grown in recent years, Oystercatchers don't get as much rest as they once did. Airboats, motorboats, and kayaks bring fishermen and nature lovers ashore - or close to shore - and flush the birds so they have to burn needed energy reserves flying to locate another resting site. And they may be flushed from the next site also.

Please consider these boating tips along Florida's Big Bend coastline:

- Kayaks and canoes flush birds too. Pass up landing or fishing close to resting flocks of birds and move on to another beautiful site.

- Use waterproof binoculars to scope out islands where you plan to fish or picnic and avoid sites with resting bird flocks.

- If your boat flushes a flock you didn't see prior to approach, and the birds appear to be circling around to land there again, they may not have another nearby, predator-free site on which to rest. Consider backing off and letting the birds have that spot. 

- Dispose of all fishing tackle properly. Do not cut line and leave it in place to become a tourniquet for a bird's leg or wing as shown in the accompanying photo.

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