Don Morrow Shorebird Survey with Interns

I pulled in to the Visitor Center parking lot at St. Mark’s NWR just before 6:00 am [Tuesday, September 24]. I was meeting the refuge’s new Carney interns, Brianna and Kelly, who would accompany me on a shorebird survey. A few minutes later a large dark pickup truck with USFWS markings pulled in and the two young women got out and introduced themselves. 

I always start my surveys with a little freelance nightbirding on the North levee at Stony Bayou II in order to start my survey around sunrise. With the late-rising Autumn sun that meant almost an hour waiting in the dark under a fat crescent moon. At first, there were just a few shooting stars. Then, we started hearing birds; a Barred Owl, King Rail, the wok-sound of a flying Black-crowned Night Heron. Brianna, whose hearing is superior to mine, reported a Great Horned Owl. Just after first light, as we began to drive to the end of Stony Bayou to get our start, Wood Ducks began to fly. We counted twenty-two birds.

Stony Bayou II is flooded and had only a single Greater Yellowlegs, but we did have a Merlin fly by. We did start seeing flocks of Blue-winged Teal, mostly flying East to continue their migration.

As we turned on to the cross levee between the two Stony Bayou pools, I noticed that the water level had dropped, exposing mud flats and creating good shorebird habitat. We had Spotted, Western, Semipalmated & Least Sandpipers; Black-bellied & Semipalmated Plovers; both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Willets. Two Northern Harriers soared by, the first returning birds of the Fall. We moved down the levee to count more birds when an odd sandpiper flew in and landed on the mud flats. It was slightly larger and heavier than the other peep species, distinctly marked with a pale buffy head. I get excited when I can’t immediately identify a bird and began taking lots of photos. Despite my remedial photographic abilities, I was able to identify the bird as a Baird’s Sandpiper. They are accidental at St.. Mark’s, usually migrating down from the arctic through the Western states. I see them every ten years or so.

Our best site for shorebirds was Tower Pond. I had picked a day with a high tide for the survey and we were rewarded with over four hundred shorebirds on the pond. In addition to the previously seen species, we added Short-billed Dowitcher and Marbled Godwit. Seventy-three mixed-age Black Skimmers sat in the shallow water. All the birds took off as a very dark juvenile Bald Eagle swooped in.

It was a good morning of Fall birding. I appreciated the interns’ help in counting shorebirds, because it turned out to be a very birdy day. We ended up with over a thousand shorebirds and two-hundred and forty-three Blue-winged Teal. Birding at the refuge is picking up. Saturday is National Public Lands Day and admission to the refuge is free. Come down and enjoy your land.

Don Morro , Tallahassee, FL