Thursday, January 5, 2017

Moonlit migration on the Gulf Coast of Florida

Our celebrated migratory Reddish Egret, Ding#1, has done it again.  She left the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Sanibel Island, Lee County, Florida, to spend the late summer months on the Nature Coast in Dixie County, Florida, from 2 June through 17 August 2016.  In 2015 she made a similar migration to the same location at the end of May, but only stayed a few weeks.
Comparison of  the 2015 (blue) and 2016 (pink) migration tracks of Ding#1, a satellite-tagged Reddish Egret from Sanibel, Florida that migrates to Dixie County in the late summer months.

Based on her breeding-season movements relative to wading bird nesting colonies in Lee County, we do not think this female nested in the spring of 2016, or at least not successfully. This could be why she spent more time on her Dixie County range in 2016. Her northbound migration was direct and punctuated by only one over-night stop, seaward of Homosassa in Citrus County.  Once at her “winter” destination, she used a single foraging area on the coast of the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Dixie County, from which she flew five miles offshore each evening to spend the night on a small island.  This pattern continued for 11 weeks.
GPS locations  of Ding#1, a satellite-tagged Reddish Egret from Sanibel, Florida that spent 11 weeks off the coast of Dixie County from early June to mid August, 2016.
On 18 August, just after midnight, Ding#1 started south by the light of the full moon.  This is the only time we’ve ever recorded a Reddish Egret embarking on a long flight at night.  We also were interested in offshore night locations, perhaps on a channel marker or stationary boat, where Ding#1 rested for at least two hours. After resuming her southbound night flight, she took one more rest just before dawn in a tree overhanging a house in a busy subdivision in Largo, Florida.  After sunrise, Ding#1 made a bee line to Pine Island and may have fished there for a few hours before returning to her favorite roost near the Wildlife Drive, on the Ding Darling NWR.  She completed her at least 230 mile southbound trip in less than 24 hours, including rest stops. Very impressive!
2016 migration track of Ding#1, a satellite-tagged Reddish Egret from Sanibel, Florida that spent 11 weeks in Dixie County.  Yellow pins highlight locations on her 24 hour southbound track back to Sanibel.
ARCI and our friends at Ding Darling NWR were not the only ones glad to know that she made it back safely.  Not even a day later, photographer Jim Bennight was on the Wildlife Drive and captured a wonderful greeting ritual between Ding#1 and her mate Ding#2.  It is worth noting that Ding#1 is the only migratory individual among the 14 Reddish Egrets we have tracked by satellite from the lower Florida Keys, Florida’s Big Bend, and on Ding Darling NWR.

Satellite-tagged Reddish Egrets Ding#1 (left) and Ding#2 (right) greeting one another at J.N "Ding" Darling NWR, Sanibel, FL, August, 2016.
Satellite-tagged Reddish Egrets Ding#1 (left) and Ding#2 (right) greeting one another at J.N "Ding" Darling NWR, Sanibel, FL, August, 2016.
Ding#1 and Ding#2 continue to grace the Refuge’s Wildlife Drive.  A few non-tagged birds also have been seen on the Refuge. We continue to track five Reddish Egrets in Lee County, plus the single bird tagged on Big Bend WMA in Dixie County. All of the tagged birds displayed their usual movement patterns during the red tide event that affected Sanibel and area waters in late November. We are monitoring them closely for any changes in behavior. You can keep up with the movements of these now-famous Reddish Egrets at:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Happy Tagging Anniversary for Ding #2!

October 17th 2015, marked the one-year tagging anniversary of Ding #2, a Reddish Egret on the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. Ding #2, tracked with a satellite/GPS transmitter, has spent the entire year within 4 miles of his capture location, and over half of the time within 0.5 miles.

One year of movement data for Ding #2 showing high site fidelity.

He has been seen by various photographers and birders along Wildlife Drive and continues to take advantage of the abundant fish prey in the impoundments near the observation tower. Ding #2 energetically defends his foraging area by chasing off other Reddish Egrets that come too close.

Ding #2 forages in the tidal shallows of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Ding #2 can be identified by the white feathers in his tail and wings. He is banded on the right leg, whereas Ding #1 is banded on the left leg.  

The other Reddish Egret tagged on the Refuge, Ding #1, also is seen regularly feeding near Wildlife Drive, although not usually in the same place and at the same time as Ding #2. However, In March and April, it appeared that Ding #1 and Ding #2 were nesting as a pair on a small island in Tarpon Bay, 3.5 miles to the east. 

Although the transmitter on Ding #1 shows signs of salt encrustation, it continues to broadcast strongly.  

We are grateful to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Willdife Service’s Division of Migratory Birds (Region 4), the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, the International Osprey Foundation, and Tom and Laura Hansen for supporting this pilot study. 

An additional, substantial contribution from the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society has made it possible to expand this project with three additional satellite-tracked birds and a concurrent study of the egrets’ fish prey. To begin, we are scouting new tagging locations in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties in Florida. You can assist in this project by submitting Reddish Egret sightings from these three counties.  

Sightings report page:

Ding #2 (left) and Ding #1 (right) engaging in a courting or territorial display.

Keep an eye out for Reddish Egrets next time you are on Sanibel Island. The Refuge is a particularly easy and enjoyable place to watch these beautiful, entertaining wading birds.

A special thank you to Jim Bennight, volunteer at the Refuge, who has provided us with all of the photos for today's blog. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Happy Anniversary! The White-crowned Pigeon tracked the longest by satellite begins his third year.

At ARCI, we celebrate anniversaries, special anniversaries of the date when a bird was captured and fitted with a satellite transmitter. Today is one such momentous occasion for the White-crowned Pigeon that we have tracked the longest by satellite. If you haven’t already, meet West. He was captured on 4 September 2013 at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens in the Florida Keys. He was the third bird of his kind to be tracked by satellite, using the smallest satellite-tracking technology available. Of the three Pigeons tagged in the Florida Keys in 2013, West is the only one still alive and transmitting.

West, fitted with a 5-gram satellite transmitter at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden, has been transmitting since 2013.

What do two years in the life of an adult White-crowned Pigeon look like? This bird wintered both years in Everglades National Park. Three weeks after being tagged in 2013, West left Stock Island, close to Key West, and headed east-northeast to the Content Keys, staying just two days before flying on to Coot Bay in the southern Everglades. He returned to Stock Island at the beginning of the next nesting season, arriving there on 5 May 2014. We suspect that he nested that summer on Stock Island. 

Two years in the life of West, the longest satellite-tracked White-crowned Pigeon.

Beginning on 1 September, West spent six days in Marathon, on Vaca Key, then made a longer stopover on Plantation Key. But by 24 September, he was back in familiar territory in Everglades National Park, where he over-wintered. With spring’s arrival, West flew south on 26 March to Little Pine Key and spent two days there before returning to Stock Island on 28 March, 39 days earlier than the previous year.

Today, West is still roaming Stock Island, probably taking advantage of the many fruiting trees in the hardwood hammock that thrives on the grounds of the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. 

During the nesting season, West's movements are centered around Stock Island, Florida.

We are very fortunate to have such enthusiastic and gracious partners at the Gardens, especially Misha McRae, Executive Director. The satellite transmitter on West and the others we deployed in 2013 were purchased with funding from the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This summer, we returned to the Florida Keys and the southern Everglades to deploy additional satellite transmitters on six adult White-crowned Pigeons, this time with financial support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

In addition to the White-crowned Pigeons we are tracking in Florida, we are also tracking several birds from breeding populations in Jamaica, The Bahamas, The Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico as part of a coordinated, range-wide study of the conservation biology of this fascinating bird.

You can follow the movements of tracked White-crowned Pigeons here: White-crowned Pigeon Tracking Maps

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In Florida? Participate in the 2015 Swallow-tailed Kite population surveys

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute invites you to participate in Florida’s Swallow-tailed Kite population monitoring surveys for 2015. At this time of year, Swallow-tailed Kites are gathering in foraging aggregations and communal night roosts, where they gain behavioral information from each other that helps them find swarms of insects and other prey to put on weight rapidly and prepare themselves for migration. These roosts are extremely sensitive places for Swallow-tailed Kites and some reach well over 1,000 birds during this brief but vitally important time of year. 

ARCI’s synchronized surveys, which began in their present form 26 years ago – in 1989 – have become a very important tool for monitoring trends in the U. S. population. We systematically photograph roosts on the same dates in late July, the period when numbers have consistently reached their peak. A recent three-year collaborative project with biologists in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas found that 90% of the kites simultaneously observed were in Florida roosts. This year, for the first time, we want to synchronize public sighting reports with Florida’s systematic photo-counts on the 3 most important days. Citizen Scientists can play a very important role in this statewide effort to track changes in our national Swallow-tailed Kite population in Florida.

Participation is easy. Just report the date, time, location and number of Swallow-tailed Kites and what they were doing when you saw them on these three days:

22 July
25 July
28 July

Enter your data on one of these online forms depending on your location. The forms are responsive to your smart device, so you can even report from the field! We recommend you bookmark these forms for easy access.

Go here for sightings in North Florida
Go here for sightings in Central Florida
Go here for sightings in South Florida

The most valuable Swallow-tailed Kite sightings will be those in the mornings from sunrise to 10:00 a.m. The birds you report may be perched or flying, but please specify. We encourage you to boat or kayak down a river, get out on your favorite lake or trail through a swamp forest (kites often roost near water), or just report kites as you see them anywhere, including from your own backyard. Above all, a bird's well-being comes first; if a bird appears agitated or takes flight, you are too close.

We look forward to hearing about your Swallow-tailed Kite sightings and including them in this Florida-wide synchronized population survey. All contributors will be acknowledged on ARCI’s website.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Roseate Terns being tracked with the smallest-ever satellite transmitter

The Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) is a medium-sized seabird with narrow breeding distributions along both the eastern and western coasts of the North Atlantic Ocean and throughout the greater Caribbean region. From 2007 to 2009, Mostello et al. (2014, Seabird) recovered six geo-locators from Roseate Terns tagged in Massachusetts breeding colonies that identified possible migration stop-over areas around Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Otherwise, very little is known about the species’ biology outside of the breeding season, when most mortality probably occurs (Nisbet, 2014, The Birds of North America Online). 
Adult Roseate Tern with 2.2 gram solar-powered satellite transmitter attached with a backpack harness.
 [photo credit: Julia Howey]
The western Atlantic breeding population is considered endangered and declining (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2010, Caribbean and North Atlantic Roseate Tern, 5-year review). The causes of colony fragmentation, local fluctuations in numbers, and steady regional declines are unknown, and no solutions have been identified. The study of migration, stopover, and wintering behavior of Roseate Terns has been handicapped by the lack of sufficiently small devices that can provide tracking data without retrieval (e.g., satellite transmitters versus geo-locators or GPS loggers). Because Roseate Terns weigh only about 100-115 grams (Gochfeld et al., 1998, The Birds of North America Online), tracking units must weigh less than 3 grams to comply with the established limit of 3% of body weight.

On 24 June 2015, we deployed solar-powered satellite transmitters (PTTs) on two adult Roseate Terns captured in a nesting colony (~200 pairs) on East Seal Dog Island in the eastern British Virgin Islands (18.506N x -64.432W degrees). These transmitters, prototypes designed, built, and donated by Microwave Telemetry, Inc.(, weighed just 2.2 grams and were attached with a carefully-fitted backpack harness. The transmitters represent about 2% of the terns’ body weight, well below the 3% limit, less than the weight of a U.S. penny, and only 11% of the average weight of a Roseate Tern egg (Gochfeld et al. 1998). 

Photo credit: Juila Howey
In the first two weeks of tracking, the tagged terns covered an area of at least 180 square kilometers within the British Virgin Islands and the transmitters performed extremely well. We expect the tracking data to begin documenting dispersal within the next two to three months. Then, if all goes as hoped for, we will watch and share the news as the southbound migration of these Roseate Terns unfolds and lead us to their wintering destinations. 

It is a privilege to be part of this exciting, ground-breaking effort. ARCI is grateful to Microwave Telemetry, Inc., and particularly to Paul and Julia Howey, for producing such valuable tracking tools and for donating the transmitters, paying for data acquisition, and contributing to the fieldwork. We also thank our project collaborators, Susan Zaluski (Executive Director, Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society,, and Louise Soanes (Research Fellow, University of Roehampton,, for involving us in their ongoing research on Roseate Terns and other seabirds in the eastern Caribbean; and to Captain Luverne Peterkin for safely conveying us to and from the study site. This work was conducted as part of a larger project funded by the Darwin Initiative, entitled “BVI seabird recovery planning programme” (DPLUS0035).