Date: 4/7/21 2:13 pm
From: Don Morrow <donaldcmorrow...>
Subject: [NFLbirds] SMNWR --- this week


I’ve never understood how a fat crescent moon can leave the night sky dark
and star-studded and still throw off enough light for me to see a gate
lock. On a cold Spring morning at St. Marks NWR, I admired the night sky
and took advantage of the moonlight to get the Tram Road gate open.

I had the windows open and my parking lights and the seat heater on. Also,
a down vest. About three quarters of a mile down the dirt road I heard the
low monotonic trill of an Eastern Screech Owl, probably a territorial male.
It’s nesting time for this species.

I doubled back and slowly worked my way around to the inner levee on Stony
Bayou II, but heard no more owls. By then it was nearing first light, the
stars were fading and only Jupiter, Saturn and the crescent moon were
visible.

I left the comfort of my SUV and began walking along the levee, just
listening. It was continuing to lighten and the moon was now a lonely
presence in the fading night sky. Rails began to call. A few King Rails,
more Soras. I heard Barred Owls hooting and then breaking into their monkey
call as two pairs disputed a territorial edge somewhere in the big cypress
dome on the North edge of the marsh.

First light came and daylight flooded the world. Cardinals and Marsh Wrens
began to sing. Tree Swallows began to fill the sky. I estimated at least
500 birds rising out of the marshes. I moved down to the East end levee as
the sun rose. Pileated Woodpeckers were calling and herons began to fly.

I was out to monitor shorebirds and just after sunrise I logged a single
Willet sitting on a mudflat. The first of over 2,000 shorebirds of 13
species that I would count. I kept scanning the morning sky for migrating
Common Loons, but saw none. The loons coming through St. Marks have been
tracked heading up into central Canada, North of the Great Lakes. They’ve
already begun migrating and it is curious that none moved on that morning.
A thick fog bank sitting off the coast may have deterred them.

I turned on to the Outer Levee and began to work my way West. There are the
remains of three experimental pools in the salt marsh on the Gulf side of
the levee. Oaks have become established on their edges and they are a good
place to look for birds. I could hear an Orchard Oriole singing from some
unseen perch. A pair of Eastern Kingbirds were hunting the levee edge and a
Bald Eagle was sitting on the branch of a dead oak, slowly ripping the
feathers off a Common Gallinule. As I approached the cross levee between
the two Stony Bayou pools, a Northern Bobwhite ran along the levee edge and
disappeared into the thick grass.

The water level on Stony Bayou I is going through its seasonal drawdown in
order to create nesting habitat for Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns. I had
expected that I would get some shorebirds there. I ended up getting almost
1,300 birds, mostly Dunlin, but lots of Western Sandpipers and Willets and
a surprising number of Semipalmated Plovers. Later in the morning on Tower
Pond I would get even more Dunlin, Westerns and Willets, but also many
Short-billed Dowitchers.

Shorebird migration is underway. Dunlin numbers, although still high, have
dropped by a third in the last two weeks. Shorebirds begin to molt into
breeding plumage on their wintering grounds and complete their molt during
migratory stopovers. Because of this, the birds at St. Marks are in a mix
of plumages ranging from drab winter gray into a range of spotted and
checkered patterns with some species showing splashes of browns, reds and
chestnut.

Some of the birds on the refuge have spent the winter here and a few
yearling birds, like Semipalmated & Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed
Dowitchers and Greater Yellowlegs will spend the summer at the refuge. They
won’t molt and migrate until their second year. Other shorebirds on the
refuge are passing through, returning from South America. All are headed
for their breeding grounds. For Dunlin, and most of the shorebirds, that
means the High Arctic, but for dowitchers it means muskeg bogs in the
boreal forests of Canada.

It was a nice day in Spring migration at St. Marks. The ducks are mostly
gone. I had three scaup, a Redhead and a Bufflehead. A few dozen
Blue-winged Teal were moving on Stony Bayou. The teal were likely migrants
up from South America. The last of the teal will still be moving through in
early June.

I don’t see many migrant songbirds while driving the levees, but I did have
Palm Warblers moving up the levees in the early morning. These were Western
race birds from Western Canada that wintered in the Caribbean and may have
come in overnight.

Come down to St. Marks. You still have time to enjoy a few cool Spring
mornings before the heat of Summer arrives.

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