Monday, April 27, 2015

Birds of a Feather: Spring Migration on Dauphin Island

A Day in Dauphin Island

When planning our trip to the Gulf Coast, we used many resources: bird guides, advice from other birders, published (eform) state birding trails, and ebird (more on that later).   In all of our research, two places came up consistently as “must” visit locations for viewing spring migration on the Gulf:   Dauphin Island, Alabama and High Island, Texas.   Both locations share a similar geographic feature in that they are both “barrier” islands, meaning they are located off of the main coastal land, connected via a road causeway.     Dauphin and High Island also share another similar feature, this related to the bird world:  These island entities are often the first landfall seen by migrating neo-tropical songbirds making the annual spring non-stop flight 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico and Central America.   Birders flock to these two islands each spring to witness the daily landfall of birds arriving to seek much needed rest and food.

Once more, in planning our trip we had to take many factors into consideration.  Again, our birding adventure was taking us all the way from Florida to Texas, quite a distance.  We had to decide whether we were going to do short stays in many places to take as much in as possible, or, do the opposite and immerse ourselves in a few strategic locations.    We ended up deciding to spend a lot of time in a few locations.   We have found that to be more our style in getting to know an area more intimately.    With that said, we made the bold decision to forego quite a few birding “hotspots” and spend a full three weeks on Dauphin Island.   We were not disappointed.

Dauphin Island is located between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay adjacent to the City of Mobile, Alabama.   It is approximately twelve miles in length and less than a mile in width in some of its thinner areas.  Half the island is natural, with the midway spot ending at a parking lot for beach goers.   The area is known for its great beauty, beaches, and quietness versus its louder more party focused counterpart Gulf Shores.    Dauphin is also known for the wrath of hurricanes and remnant damage is still visible.    Memories appear to be short.   Signs of re-building mega-priced FEMA homes is evident in all the neighborhoods.  

We parked our rig right across the street from the public beach and pier.   “Pier” is out of context in this case because the last hurricane moved a small sand island from off shore to on shore moving the ocean front 200 yards further out beyond what used to be a multi-use community pier.   Think drought in lake with no water at the boat ramp.

We quickly got into the birding swing of things, reconnoitering the various local birding spots previewed from earlier research.    The first afternoon we found ourselves at Shell Mounds.   This ended up becoming our absolute favorite spot to bird on the island and we spent almost every afternoon parked at the “Mound”.  Shell Mounds is an ancient Native American miden made up of upteen million discarded oyster shells fished and eaten by generations of native inhabitants.   On these small shell “ hills” are large iconic trees and a variety of plant understory.  Shell Mounds is well known in plant research circles as being a location of incredible plant diversity in an area that otherwise has little.    We quickly started making acquantences with other birders. Its’ been repeated a million times over at how friendly local birders can be to visiting birders; Dauphin Island was no exception.   The local birding folks and “serial” visitors quickly took us under their “wings” and mentored us on how to bird Dauphin.

We quickly learned that migrating birds crossing the Gulf from Mexico and Central America leave at dusk if conditions are favorable.   Birds look for two things:   a good southerly tail wind and no precipitation to slow them down.   If all goes well, the stronger flying birds such as Eastern Kingbird, Summer & Scarlet Tanagers, and Orchard Oriole tend to show up on Dauphin Island the next day at around 3pm…yes they fly non-stop for approximately 18 hours.   The smaller birds, wood warblers, vireos, hummingbirds, etc, begin arriving an hour or so later.  Three things can happen with the weather after the birds embark on their Gulf crossing: 1) Conditions can stay the same and the birds can stop at Dauphin or continue directly to the mainland; 2)Conditions can improve, i.e. tail wind picks up speed and the birds can proceed directly to the mainland; 3)Conditions can turn nasty, i.e. a strong wet north wind, which can literally pour the birds out of the sky landing anywhere sanctuary is available often too exhausted to move off of the ground.    Condition “3” is the cause of what birders call “fall-out” an incredible opportunity to see birds literally falling around you, but a very dire predicament for the birds.   Fall outs can be deadly with countless birds dropping dead from exhaustion into the Gulf before reaching landfall.     We never witnessed fallout, but we did see the result of some heavy rains.    One day, at around 6 in the evening we had just gotten back from the Mound and were putting some stuff away in the outside compartments of the trailer.   All of a sudden we started seeing  birds flying in from the west by the hundreds.   They were at all altitudes, thousands of feet up and flying at ground level.   Coincidentally, we had some friends driving by the trailer at the time and they pulled their car over and got out in shear amazement.   They told us that in the fifteen years they had been birding Dauphin Island, they had never witnessed anything like it.   We all sat there in awe as wave after wave of birds flew over us, by us, and through us.   The flight seemed to last 30 minutes and the final tally was in the thousands.   Our speculation was that the birds had been blown west from the rain and wind that day and were flying east to Dauphin to compensate their navigational trajectory error.   It’s an experience we will never forget.

Once birds hit Dauphin in the afternoon they either stay a short period of time (sometimes only minutes) before heading to the mainland, or they will spend the night if their feathers are wet and they’re exhausted from the flight. A wet day can mean good birding in the early morning because the birds have overnighted to recover.   On the other hand, good weather can mean no birds the next morning.

When birding was slow in the morning, we changed our focus from forest to sea.   We’d grab the scope and walk the beach looking for shorebirds, waders, and seabirds. Dauphin Island blew our minds in the number of different ocean birds we saw for the first time. We got incredible looks at the Piping Plover, considered an endangered species.    We had days with six plover species: Wilson’s, Piping, Snowy, Semi-palmated, Killdeer, and Black-bellied. We got to see our first Semi-palmated  and Stilt Sandpipers.   New tern species such as Least, Common, Sandwich, Gull-billed, and Royal were present in groups yards from us.   More importantly than seeing “firsts”, we were able to see the ocean birds changing into their breeding plumages.   Typically, we only see the drabber winter colors of fall migrants or winter residents.   These birds were literally changing into their brilliant breeding plumages right in front of us.

Eastern Kingbirds arriving in the afternoon were usually a sign that the birds were coming into land from the Gulf to rest and feed before continuing north to their breeding locations..
The male American Redstart flits through the tree, frequently fanning its tail exposing the orange patches.
The Black-and-White Warbler seems to fill the niche of the Brown Creeper, creeping along trunks gleaning insects.
The male Hooded Warbler feeds and is seen mostly on or near the ground in dark understory.
The female Hooded Warbler is often recognized by its behavior of fanning its white outer tail feathers.

This is a 1st year female Hooded Warbler.

Kentucky Warblers are one of the most difficult birds to see. Typically their behavior is to skulk along the ground and move away from any disturbance.
There are 2 Waterthrush species. This is a Louisiana Waterthrush. Like its counterpart, the Northern Waterthrush, the Louisiana continuously bobs the back half of its body as it walks.  
Prothonotary Warbler are one of the earliest warblers to migrate north.

The Swainson's Warbler is a ground specialist, hence is very difficult to see.
A Swainson's Warbler displaying its behavior of turning over leaves to feed.
Contrary to its name, the Worm-eating Warbler does not eat worms off the ground but specializes in poking its head into dead leaf clusters searching for insects.
The Myrtle subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler is a common warbler of the east as is the Audubon's subspecies in the west.
This Blue-winged Warbler was soaking wet from a rain-filled trans-Gulf crossing.
The Black-whiskered Vireo is typically uncommon outside of the West Indies. 
The White-eyed Vireo is one of the most vocal birds of the forest.
We heard theYellow-throated Vireo singing for many days before we actually saw one.
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeding on one of it favorite foods, Huckleberries.
Blue Grosbeaks can often be confused with Indigo Buntings. The large bill and rufous wing bars help to differentiate this bird from the buntings.
This is a male Indigo Bunting, born last year. You can tell that since it has not come into its full blue plumage.
Though common, the Blue Jay is one of the most beautiful corvids.
At one point Eastern Bluebird populations were crashing due to loss of nest cavities (cutting trees down). Because of the placement of nest boxes, Bluebird populations have made a comeback.
Smaller than the American Crow, the Fish Crow is a bird of the south.
It is probably an optical illusion, but we swear the Great Horned Owls seem bigger here.

We saw this Merlin only one day. He must have migrated north.
We came upon this Sharp-shinned Hawk eating a Blue Jay.
This is what was left on the trail below.
The Northern Cardinals are one of the first nesters.

Female Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal
Orioles were one of the first birds to arrive from their trans-Gulf migration in the afternoons. 

Orchard Oriole male
The 1st summer male Orchard Oriole can be confused with a male Hooded Oriole because of the black under the bill.
Birders love the Orioles due to their colorful plumage and their preference for open areas with tall trees.

 Male Baltimore Oriole
First year male Baltimore Oriole
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The male Scarlet Tanager is often overlooked because of it rather secretive behavior and its preference for the forest canopy.
The sprinkling of yellow on the head and wings indicates this is a male 1st spring Summer Tanager. 
It looks like the dragonfly will be quite a meal for this male Summer Tanager.
This female Summer Tanager has quite something too.
Turtle love?
The Wood Thrush has a hauntingly beautiful song. They are usually easier to hear than to see. This bird hopped up on this stump in the forest on a rainy morning at the Sanctuary.
This male Black-throated Green Warbler is easy to identify with his big black bib on his throat.
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a secretive bird of the forest. It can often be heard before it is seen. They  eat large quantities of hairy caterpillars.
This is the male Yellow Warbler; you can tell by the red streaks on the breast and belly.
The Tennessee Warbler is a dainty warbler of the Canadian boreal forest.
The Ovenbird is a small inconspicuous bird of the forest floor. It gets its name from its covered nest.
This Green Heron was hunting from a palm tree next to a small pond.
This Great Blue Heron was perched on a dead snag above the forest.
This Great Crested Flycatcher has a meal.
Carolina Wren
Male Cape May Warbler; another new warbler species and a gorgeous one at that.
Female Cape May Warbler- we were so fortunate to get to see the male and female.
Black-bellied Plover & Western Sandpiper
Black-bellied Plover eating worms
Brown Pelican in breeding plumage. They typically breed on islands.

Clapper or King Rail; according to the bird books, the Gulf subspecies of the Clapper Rail is almost identical to the King Rail. In fact, the two hybridize where their territories overlap.
Dunlin changing into breeding plumage.
Forster's Terns in winter plumage.
Swallowtail Butterfly
Grasshopper on the beach
Juvenile Great Blue Heron
Laughing Gulls

Least Tern is the smallest of American Terns. It can be found nesting on sandy beaches along the southern coasts of the U.S,
The Mottled Duck is the only duck adapted to breeding in southern marshes. It is endangered of being displaced by introduced Mallards, which is primarily a result of hybridization.
Banded Piping Plover. Any bands we were able to get photos of we reported to the website . We later found out most of the Dauphin Island Piping Plovers breed in the Dakotas. The Piping Plovers are an endangered species. This makes seeing these birds especially wonderful.

Fabio: the Reddish Egret:-)

Common and Royal Terns
Royal and Caspian Terns
Royal and Gull-billed Terns 
Royal Terns
Sanderlings with Western Sandpipers 
Sandwich Terns
Semipalmated Plover and Sanderling

Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin: it is great to see the birds next to each other for comparison.
Short-billed Dowitcher still in winter plumage.
The eastern Snowy Plovers are much whiter than our west coast Snowies.
This Sora was out in the marsh near the airport.
This was the first Stilt Sandpiper we had ever seen. It was quite a distance away but you can tell it is a Stilt Sandpiper due to the long legs and long bill.

Three species: Western Sandpiper, Dunlin and Sanderling.
The Willet is a large sandpiper of the interior West and ocean beaches. It is well known for its piercing calls and bright black-and-white flashing wings.

This was the first time we had seen Wilson's Plovers. This is their breeding territory so we got to see them displaying and calling out to each other.

Male and female Wilson's Plover
The male Wilson's Plover calling out to his mate.
Note the long legs, long thick bill and thick breast band.
The West End.....

The world is full of beauty and wonder,

Turtle & Hawk

1 comment:

  1. What a magnificent birding experience you've had! We stayed at Gulf Shores for a week and visited Dauphin Island for the day -- next time we would love to stay on the island. Three weeks sounds fabulous!