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The Best Opportunity Ever

Tufters looks on to a beautiful Barnegat sunset. 

Tufters looks on to a beautiful Barnegat sunset. 

This week I received my first real taste of serious field work. In only two days I’ve learned and accomplished so many different things. This type of work is definitely where I fit in, and I would love nothing more than to be able to do it the rest of my life. Here’s to the beginning.

Wednesday morning I set out to meet my fellow researchers, Rebeca and Jason. Our assignment for the day was a full resighting survey.  In other words, we were trying to locate and identify all of the banded birds in the area located at the southern tip of Long Beach Island. The place is beautiful and just jumping with all sorts of birds from plovers to American oystercatchers to huge colonies of least terns.  It was a long, hot day in the field with a ton of tricky work involved. All of the birds have to be identified by either colored bands or flags attached to their legs, as well as by their corresponding nest sites. It can really difficult.  At the end of the survey, we had a good amount of banded birds. All in all it was a very successful day, and a great way to gain some introductory experience to piping plover research.

Pongo being a protective father.  His nest was nearby.

Pongo being a protective father.  His nest was nearby.

The adult birds only weigh an ounce, and blend in perfectly with the sand.  Unless you are looking, the odds are you won’t see them.  The birds nest on wide sandy beaches, right out in the open. This is part of the reason why they are so imperiled. They lay anywhere from one to four eggs per nest, but can truly lay up to six eggs if something goes wrong on prior nesting attempts. For example, here is a three egg nest: 

It amazes me how well the eggs blend in with the sand. They are often crushed by people, cars and even pets. This is why beaches are closed off for the summer in locations such as Holgate.  

A couple of the nests have begun to hatch already, releasing the smallest, cutest and clumsiest chicks prancing through the sand. Right at birth the chicks are able to begin walking around on the sand for themselves, but it normally takes a few days for them to become stable for longer periods of time. The job of the adult birds becomes very important during this period, as the chicks need protection from predators as well as help maintaining body heat. The adults will often brood the chicks to keep them warm and protected.

Going in...

Going in...

Still going...

Still going...

Almost there...

Almost there...

...and made it!  Notice the two little legs poking out of the front of the bird.

...and made it!  Notice the two little legs poking out of the front of the bird.

This brings me to day two. Thursday morning Rebeca and I returned to the field to begin predator plots. This entails surveying particular locations that have been randomly generated throughout the area. There are fifteen or so predator plots at Holgate. After arriving at each plot location, we take note of all tracks in the sand included in a specific radius from the center of the plot.  We observed many different tracks, from toad to rabbit and even raccoon which have predated two different nests over the past two days. This is both sad and frustrating to see. After recording tracks, we survey the area on the clock for five minutes, recording all of the birds in the area, both near and far. This gives us an idea of what birds have been seen around the sites, and what to expect in the coming weeks.  

At the south end of the island Rebeca and I had an encounter with one of the world’s top predators, as well as a predator to piping plovers. An immature female peregrine falcon which we had seen hunting earlier in the day had come and perched close by one of our predator plot locations. She was located in the path of where we were headed, so I prepared the lens with some hope for a good photo opportunity. I approached ahead of Rebeca and was able to get pretty close to the bird.  She had just eaten a meal, and did not seem concerned with me clicking away.  

13:BR perched out at Holgate.

13:BR perched out at Holgate.

Every once in a while she would fly and land on an even nicer perch, almost asking me to take her picture! I took shots of her in four different locations, all of which turned out very nicely. I was super stoked. After the last spot, she had enough and took off for the bay side of the island, further away from the plover nests. Success! 

This is my personal favorite shot of her perched. 

This is my personal favorite shot of her perched. 

I was able to read her band numbers clearly in a few different shots, and later discovered that she is from Pennsylvania  Her band combination is 13:BR.  We are still hoping to find out where exactly she fledged from, but for now the state will have to do!  I’m sure this won’t be the last time we run into her at Holgate.  She is a local bird, and is seen all the time. 

I've learned over time that falcons love perching on signs.  We were eye level for this shot.

I've learned over time that falcons love perching on signs.  We were eye level for this shot.

Another successful day it was. Next week will be crazy, with dozens of more chicks running wild on the beaches of LBI. It is going to be exciting for sure. I can’t wait to get going. 

Have a nice weekend everyone! 

Kyle