Friday, January 28, 2022

‘Tis the Season to Watch For Birds

Stepping Stones

Be sure to join Bob on April 16th at 7 PM as he talks about the birds we find in the Marco Island/ Western Everglades areas. His guest will be Jim Murray, formerly with Florida Sea Grant and NOAA, a proficient birder who has identified more than 600 different species. The venue is the Marco Island Historical Society’s Rose History Auditorium. Come early and meet the speakers!

“Ladies and Gentlemen please fasten your seatbelts. We are now arriving in South Florida where the weather is warm and conditions are perfect…for bird watching! I hope you’ve enjoyed your flight. Okay, birds, get busy and start laying those eggs!”

It is definitely the season that we have said goodbye to some winter guests, such as the white pelicans, and we prepare for the coming of our summer residents that nest and raise their young on our beaches. Oh yes…don’t forget the year-round species that are doing the same.

On our beaches, last spring was a banner year for species such as the least terns. The smallest of all terns, their colony on the north end of Tigertail Beach was one of the most successful and productive in the state. Weighing less than two ounces this migratory bird will arrive in our area this month in preparation for its nesting season.

A black skimmer parent looks after its new hatchling on Tigertail Beach’s north shore.

The courtship is sometimes quite comical to watch. A male will catch a fish, fly to shore and offer it to a female. If she declines it, he will offer to another, and then another, until the “proposal” is accepted.

Once they are a couple, a nest is built in a shallow scrape along the beach. The eggs are extremely well camouflaged, being the same color as the sand and the surroundings. Egg incubation lasts about three weeks and young least terns will leave the nest after just a few days.

When the colony leaves our area in July they are bound for South America. Next spring, the ritual will begin again.

Not too far from the terns on the same beach we will find a colony of black skimmers. The most noticeable feature on this bird is the large black and orange bill. The lower bill is longer than the top and is used to skim along the water’s surface to catch fish. When they contact prey the head will quickly bend forward, snapping the upper bill to the lower, seizing their next meal.

Using the same type of “scrape” as the tern, the female will produce up to seven eggs. Both the male and female will share the incubation duties. When chicks are hatched, the upper and lower bills, known as mandibles, are equal in length but the lower one will quickly elongate in preparation for its skimming process once it flies.

The great egret is an indicator species. Their success or failure in mating season could be a barometer for our ecosystems.

Not to be outdone by these magnificent terns and skimmers, many of our local birds are now in their spring mating season as well. Our herons, egrets, storks and ibises are very, very busy. Of these locals, five species are considered “indicator species” and, as their success or failure goes, this represents the health of the area ecosystems. These five are: the great egrets, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, wood storks and the white ibises.

Many of our wetland ecosystems depend on water levels. Water moving over a landscape, rainfall and sea levels all play an important role. Wet summers mean a good supply of fish and dry winters drive these fish into smaller pools, making for easier catches for the parents of nesting chicks. For example, a pair of wood storks need more than 400 pounds of fish from the beginning of nesting season until the chicks are on their own. If water, and weather patterns, are not conducive, there could be trouble in paradise. But there is a balance to nature so, hopefully, one or two bad years will be offset by several successful breeding years.

There is a lot to see and do regarding our bird population. You just never know what will pass overhead at this time of year. So fasten those seatbelts! We’re in for an exciting ride this spring!

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting educational walks of the Western Everglades. He is also a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel Dolphin Explorer and the author of two books available locally “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves.” You can contact him at 239-293-0800. Bob loves his wife very much!

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