Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reassurance of Humanity

Birding is a great hobby – it gets you outdoors, it’s relatively cheap, and it allows you to appreciate nature in such a great way. We birders love to watch and observe birds, and sometimes sightings can bring us the utmost joy. And then there are times when we can feel a little ache in our heart when we learn about species that are in trouble or on the decline, which oftentimes is due to habitat loss mostly caused by humans. We do our best to donate to conservation groups when we can or write letters to government officials pleading for reconsideration of some project that is sure to cause destruction of wildlife habitat. But sometimes we can still feel disconnected from the effort. That’s why it’s so great when one gets an opportunity to really get out there and physically do something that matters and be reassured by the conservation efforts of devoted individuals.

Royal Terns flying by stirring up an American Oystercatcher - Tomkins Island

View of a sandbar from Tomkins Island. I'm guessing mostly Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls made up those little white dots. 

I had such an opportunity just yesterday when a group from the local Fish and Wildlife Service and a handful of volunteers set out to help maintain a suitable habitat for nesting shorebirds. Back in 2005, a group from the Savannah District Corps of Engineers constructed Tomkins Island, a 5-acre island built in the Atlantic Ocean between Georgia and South Carolina specifically as a habitat for bird nesting. Every year it needs a little maintenance to make it attractive to birds such as Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Least Terns, and American Oystercatchers. Well, I learned that terns, especially Least Terns, can be quite particular about their nesting grounds as they prefer very clear sandy/ rocky flat areas with little to no vegetation. Problems arise when beachgoers and off-road vehicles also like these areas, and they can often disturb and damage nesting sites. Least terns have also been known to go to flat rooftops covered in pebbles for nesting.

American Oystercatcher keeping a close eye on us

American Oystercatcher taking post on a rock

The local expert advised that the area hasn’t quite attracted the Least Terns, which are especially in need of nesting grounds. He advised that the larger Sandwich and Royal Terns can sometimes bully them out of breeding territory. However, good people are doing good work and trying their best to make a nice area for them all. A crew had already started the maintenance work, but there was still much to be done. A group of about a dozen of us were the second round of folks to do some landscaping work – pulling and raking any vegetation in sight, spraying herbicide on plants we couldn’t pull, and treating for fire ants (a danger to chicks).

A group of Brown Pelicans taking off

Brown Pelican Soaring

It was definitely hard work as the island had no shade and no bathrooms, not to mention temps in the high 70s/low 80s with almost no clouds. Luckily, there was a nice ocean breeze and no biting bugs in action. It was tough and my body could feel it later that day, and even today as all my muscles ache. But what gratifying work it was! I got my hands dirty and actually physically did something that will directly benefit birds. 

A pair of American Oystercatchers with Brown Pelicans flying over

American White Pelicans amongst Brown Pelicans

It was such a rewarding experience, and I only wish Nick didn’t have that thing called "work" that kept him away. There were plenty of birds to draw my attention, but mostly I had to keep my head down and pull weeds. But I did stop every once in while to enjoy the sights and sounds of Brown Pelicans in breeding plumage, a nice little group of American White Pelicans (a first for the area for me), American Oystercatchers calling and flitting about, masses of Royal Terns squawking above us, and a number of smaller shorebirds such as Dunlin, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers and other small peeps feeding in the mud. I didn’t have my SLR camera with me, but luckily I was able to use my point-and-shoot to take pics. 

Brown Pelican in breeding plumage

Brown Pelicans

The highlight of the day was definitely seeing a nest of what I believe to be American Oystercatchers. There laid 3 perfect little speckled eggs in a lovely little indention in the sand amongst larger rocks and lined with little pieces of white shells and rocks. What a sight to see, and so closely! It was definitely a great way to end a great day of satisfying, hard work.

Hard work pays off! The top surface is mostly cleared of vegetation, which we then threw below to be washed away by the surf. 

American Oystercatcher Eggs in a shell-groomed nest amongst the rocks!


  1. HOORAY for tangible improvement of the planet and its amazing denizens. BULLY for you. I probably need to look out for similar opportunities 'round me.

    Nicely DONE! =)

    1. Thanks! It was great, and I definitely recommend finding these opportunities when you can!

  2. Great variety. I love those oystercatcher eggs. I've never seen them before.

    1. Thanks, Dina! It was the first time I saw Oystercatcher eggs, too. It was awesome!

  3. Charming post Maureen. It is so gratifying and important to get out and directly involved in something you love, something that's important.
    Seeing large (or even small) colonies of roosting birds is a spectacle I still await. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Thanks, Laurence! My sentiments exactly. And seeing colonies of roosting birds is quite a site. I'll have an upcoming post more on that subject coming soon. =)

  4. What a great way to help out the birds we all enjoy so much! It's so nice you took part in this opportunity. I love your Brown Pelican photos; I just yesterday noticed 2 by my house with their breeding plumage. I love that chestnut color!

    1. Thanks, Tammy! I love that chestnut color, too. And their lemony yellow heads.