Coastal Conservation

Riders on the Storm

Three Hurricane Irma bird survival stories by Patrick and Doris Leary

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.

Appropriately, the media has been dominated by human interest topics following the passage of Hurricane Irma with its unprecedented impacts on Florida. Less attention has been focused on impacts to the state's environment and flora and fauna. We share three shorebird stories here that reflect the remarkable resilience of birds in the face of violent weather and how migratory birds can connect far distant locations via shared conservation efforts.

On September 12, we surveyed the south beach of Little Talbot Island State Park in Duval County to assess impacts to the area's Piping Plover population. Within a short period of time, a total of sixteen plovers were recorded, including four observed prior to Irma and one new bird banded from Fire Island, NY. Incidental to these observations, we sighted several flocks of American Oystercatchers flying low along the beach, the last of which landed on the shoreline of Ft. George Inlet. Knowing that such migratory flocks would likely include banded birds, we quickly hiked to their location to search for markers and collect images of the birds. To our dismay, an adult female Peregrine Falcon soaring overhead flushed all the birds before we reached them. Not until we returned home and processed the images did we learn that two of the oystercatchers carried orange bands engraved with alpha codes.  

The juvenile oystercatcher banded as OR[A65] (orange leg flag engraved with code "A65") and resighted on Little Talbot proved to be the offspring of an adult banded in 2006 as OR[T2] that annually nests at Barnegat Light, NJ and has wintered near Cedar Key. This juvenile and its sibling OR[A64] are the first successfully fledged chicks from that male and his mate since 2006! Prior to this season, the pair had failed to hatch any eggs at the lighthouse site. News of the resighting on Little Talbot Island following Irma was a great relief to conservationists who monitor and manage oystercatchers  in NJ. 

On September 14, we surveyed Nassau Sound by boat around the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park. Traditionally, the region supports two distinct plover populations that occupy separate habitats at opposite ends of the island around the food-rich inlets. As we landed our vessel in the lower sound, we detected several plovers foraging nearby. Shortly thereafter, we confirmed one Wf[KC] (white leg flag engraved with "KC") as a familiar winter resident, originally banded in May 2014 at Crow Neck Beach, S. Nova Scotia. A second Wf[AJ] plover foraged close by, but we would not learn its origin until sharing the images and sighting report with our Canadian plover contact, Cheri Gratto-Trevor.

In very little time, we received the following response from Sue Abbott, Nova Scotia Program Coordinator, Bird Studies Canada: "Our staff and volunteers will be so happy to hear that AJ not only made it down to the wintering grounds, but also survived Irma! This youngster hatched from a nest in front of a rental cottage at Louis Head beach in Shelburne Co. We worked very closely with the landowners and renters to reduce disturbance, which involved roping off the boardwalk access and connecting regularly with each arriving renter group."

This enthusiastic message provides keen insight into how universal bird conservation has become and how others in far distant locations are equally committed to protecting and conserving birds that depend on sites and critical habitats at opposite ends of the birds' annual ranges.

Following our observations of the Canadian plovers, we hiked a short distance to Little Talbot's north ocean beach and immediately detected more birds foraging there including another banded plover with a very different status and condition. Unlike its companions, this plover hopped on one leg, favoring a badly entangled foot on its retracted leg. This misfortune was not new and had been detected on the plover's first resight upon returning to the region weeks prior. However, subsequent efforts to locate the plover failed and this day's sighting confirmed its survival of Irma despite its persistent injury. Remarkably, this plover and its sibling migrated to Little Talbot as hatch-year juveniles in 2016, spent the winter together, and returned to Michigan this past May. One was recaptured and fitted with new bands, but the other eluded conservationists. This August, first one and then the other sibling returned to Talbot Island for another winter - a rare occurrence for piping plovers anywhere across the range. Now we had one healthy and one critically entangled sibling and an effort to capture, examine and treat the bird is being planned.

Northeast Florida did not escape Irma's wrath and the region suffered significant impacts to personal and public properties, infrastructure and natural resources. As humans we focus on our needs and comforts (AC as a prime example) but give little thought to the wildlife that has no shelter or protection from nature's most violent weather. Thus, perhaps you share our wonder and awe at the remarkable resilience of the birds featured in this piece. 

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