Who's That in our Sandbox?

August 2015 - Friends Forward
As live American oystercatchers peck and attack their pretend twins, a thin whoosh net suddenly covered them, giving volunteers a few seconds to catch them and attach a red band to their upper legs.
Credit: Joe Smith

The American oystercatcher pair didn’t know what to do with the two very realistic decoys that had been placed in the pair’s territory on Two Mile Beach in Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, NJ. As the live birds pecked and attacked their pretend twins (video), a thin whoosh net suddenly covered them, giving volunteers a few seconds to catch them and attach a red band to their upper legs.

Seven of the eight birds nesting on the beach last April have been tagged to learn more about nesting productivity and identify which pairs of birds are successfully nesting, renesting and reproducing. Funding came from the Friends of Cape May.

While Friend and refuge volunteer John King was monitoring the beach for nesting birds in recent years, he noticed that American oystercatchers often lost multiple nests in a season to predators. He suggested to fellow Friends board member Joe Smith – a licensed bird bander - that they try to band the oystercatchers. The idea quickly gathered steam.

Friends of Cape May Refuge, NJ, have funded a banding operation to track the behavior of American oystercatchers and their chicks.
Credit: John King

Refuge wildlife biologist Heidi Hanlon believed banding would “give us a handle on the birds we have each year.” Cooper Rossner, a biological technician at the refuge, carved two oystercatcher decoys. The Friends provided funding for supplies, including the whoosh net. Several local conservation organizations offered volunteers.

Luring the Oystercatchers The plan was to band as many birds as possible in April before they nest. Smith used a recording of oystercatcher calls along with the decoys to attract the birds. “If you imitate an invading pair of oystercatchers you can bring them into capture range.” Of four nesting pairs, all but one bird now sport uniquely identifying bands that can be seen from a spotting scope.

“It has been a rewarding experience,” says Smith, “because we have visitors who are aware of banded birds and report their sightings. Oystercatchers are also a feature of our bird walks.”

Joe Smith bands an American oystercatcher at Cape May Refuge, NJ.
Credit: John King

So far this year, chicks from three pairs of oystercatchers have fledged, and “we can track the birds we have. We can see if birds that aren’t successful here go to another beach, break up or stay together,” says Hanlon.

At J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, the Ding Darling Wildlife Society raised funds at its annual Trailgate Party to pay for satellite transmitters for three reddish egrets as well as a study of the prey targeted by these egrets. They are the rarest and least studied wading bird in the United States. More on this project here. In the past, the Society has also raised funds to support the mangrove cuckoo, another understudied refuge bird.