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Archive for June 19th, 2012

Hello again from Ship Island! Jill and I have been off the island for about 4 days as part of a mid-season break provided for us by the refuge staff. Now that we’re back and catching up on our work, here’s the second part of  “Citizens of Ship Island”, as promised.

In my last post, I wrote about the songbirds that call Ship Island home during the summer. This time, it’s all about water birds of all kinds. While we have songbirds breeding right on the island, most of our seabirds and shorebirds are found on the three islands surround Ship: East Barge, West Barge, and Trumpet.

Take for example the Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. Because both of these species of gulls will eat tern eggs and chicks, they aren’t permitted to breed on Ship itself. Both species, however, make (usually unwelcome) appearances on Ship and have nests on both the Barges and Trumpet. Great Black-backed Gulls are one of the biggest North American gulls, with a wing span of over 6 feet while Herring Gulls are a bit smaller. Check out the photo below for a comparison.

Great Black-backed Gull on the left, Herring Gull on the right

Also nesting on Trumpet are North America’s largest sea duck: the Common Eider. While the females may look like a standard brown duck, the males have flashy black and white plumage.

A handsome Common Eider male with two Common Terns on the beach of Ship Island

Most often we see these large ducks paddling around with their heads under the water before they dive down for mollusks and other invertebrates. As you can see, they are quite a bit bigger than a tern!

A male Common Eider on the left, a female on the right, and a Common Tern in the middle

Eiders are best known for the incredibly warm down they produce – the females actually line their nests with these soft feathers. Eider ducklings take to the water the same day they hatch. Females with ducklings will gather together to form crèches, made up of several females and their young, to help protect the ducklings from predators like gulls. Although eiders pose no threat to our terns, they find people a bit intimidating and so prefer to nest on Trumpet.

A female Common Eider and her ducklings

Out on West Barge, in addition to lots of Great Black-backed Gulls, we have a colony of Double-crested Cormorants. Like the eiders, the cormorants prefer to nest on human-free islands, but we see them every day in the waters around Ship.

West Barge’s Double-crested Cormorant colony

They also sometimes come to shore to gather seaweed for nesting materials, like the one flying off in the picture below. The colony on West Barge seems to be doing well – we’ve counted about 50 cormorants on the south side of the island.

A Double-crested Cormorant flies off with some nesting material.

Not all of the water birds find us so intimidating. We have several Mallards on and around Ship, including a female with her ducklings. We usually see this fluffy gang paddling around in a swampy depression in the middle of the island.

Female Mallard paddling with her ducklings. Photo taken by Jill


Finally, we have our beloved Spotted Sandpipers. The only shorebirds that nest on Ship Island, Spotted Sandpipers are easily identified by their “teetering” behavior: as they walk (or even when they stand), they bob their rumps up and down. The purpose of this behavior is still unknown, but it makes them easy to pick out of a crowd.

An adult Spotted Sandpiper on the shores of Ship Island

We have several pairs of these nesting on the island, and we recently spied our first chick running around on the beach. Compared to other young birds, Spotted Sandpiper chicks are quick and agile. This one was already practicing its teetering! Jill snagged a photo of him bobbing his way down the beach.

A Spotted Sandpiper chick out for a run on the beach

Next time, the terns will be back in the spotlight with fuzzy chicks galore!

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