Bird Bands Shed Light on Cross-Flyway Shorebird Migrations

Audubon Florida biologist Michael Ferrara tracks banded plovers as they stop over in the Panhandle on their twice-yearly journeys.
a person stands on a beach and looks through a spotting scope, facing left. In the background is the ocean and a blue sky with sparse clouds.

It’s morning, and finally cool after weeks under a sweltering heat wave. Michael Ferrara, Audubon’s Carrabelle shorebird biologist, and I watch a thunderstorm and its deep blue clouds slide by just east of us, far enough away to avoid rain but close enough to revel in the dramatic skyline. Alligator Point in the Florida Panhandle is stunning: bright white sand contrasting with the green and gold of sea oats and meadows of coastal grasses, bordered on one side by Alligator Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. And birds. So many birds.

September marks a transition month for Audubon coastal biologists. Nesting season is winding down—or, this year, quickly ended by Hurricane Idalia—and migrating sea and shorebirds have already arrived to spend their winters in the Sunshine State. Though the season of educating locals and visitors about nesting beach birds and monitoring their colonies is over, migration and winter bird surveys allow our team to collect valuable information on bird movement and behavior, discovering which birds have successfully made the journey from their breeding grounds—and which have disappeared. Today, I’m along for the ride.

Ferrara carries the bird survey essentials: cell phone, binoculars, spotting scope, camera, GPS, and notebook. He jots down every species he sees, from the large-bodied Brown Pelicans to the tiny Least Sandpipers, the common Sanderlings to the relatively rare Long-billed Curlew. As a birder himself, he loves all the wildlife he encounters, but he pays special attention to threatened and endangered species, including the Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Black Skimmers, and one American Oystercatcher we see on our survey, as well as the Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns that are present during other seasons.

What are we looking for? Bird bands.

Banded Birds

Birds are everywhere, from the densest of cities to the highest of mountains, the driest of deserts to the deepest of forests. They are spread across Florida, the country, and the world, and yet their true nature can remain elusive. Birds are difficult to study, especially as they disperse away from their nesting grounds or fly hundreds of miles along migratory pathways.

To combat these study difficulties, researchers specially certified by the United States Geological Survey apply small, lightweight, identifier bands to species we want to protect.

Bird banding is like scientists putting a note in a bottle and tossing it back into the sea of migration. The note only provides information if someone observes and reports it when the bottle arrives on a far-off shore. Because of the efforts of both biologists and community scientists across the world, we learn more about the movements, populations, and breeding success of our banded species. By recording the color, placement, and (sometimes) the band number, we identify individual birds across their range.

Becoming a Bird Biologist

Ferrara has honed his bird identification, conservation, and band spotting skills over years of avian biology work. He attended college to study conservation biology, and specifically fell in love with birds and birding when a professor carefully captured a Least Flycatcher that was flying around the classroom of a summer field course in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This spark bird, the Least Flycatcher, inspired more coursework in avian ecology, and then his career as a bird biologist. And he knows his stuff—as we walk, he helps me identify Red Knots, points out the minute differences between Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and explains his tips and tricks for telling terns apart, all while keeping track of more than two dozen endangered Piping Plovers as they run along the shoreline.

A Small Band Tells a Big Story

Piping Plovers are of particular interest on these surveys. Though they have been documented on Audubon Florida-monitored sites 11 out of 12 months of the year, they typically overwinter here before migrating north to raise their families on beaches in the northeastern United States, on the shores of the Great Lakes, or large water bodies in the middle of North America. Despite weighing just two ounces and stretching the length of a human hand, plovers make migrations of hundreds if not thousands of miles every year, often returning to the same overwintering and breeding sites. They like to breed and winter in the same habitat that is popular for people—beaches—making them vulnerable to disturbance, nearby trash that attracts predators, and development. According to Partners in Flight, there are only around 8,400 Piping Plovers worldwide, making each individual bird an important piece of their overall population success.

At Alligator Point, Ferrara keeps his eye out for a handful of banded plovers he has spotted many times before, almost like searching for old friends amidst the sand, dunes, and wrack line.

Watching the plovers, Ferrara suddenly points: “See that one there? That bird is all the way from Nova Scotia.”

Nova Scotia?!

Ferrara calls the bird “white flag KP,” for the white flag with a black K and P attached to its leg. Researchers banded the bird last summer at Crow Neck Beach in Nova Scotia, and it successfully made the long journey to Florida. Ferrara’s record of the bird on our survey was the first in a nonbreeding territory; if the bird remains after November 1, banders consider it officially “wintering” on Alligator Point, so Ferrara will continue to keep an eye out.

We keep moving, Ferrara noting another Piping Plover banded in South Dakota and still another banded in Michigan all the way back in 2014.

Known in his notes as “Of,OB:X,Y,” this particular bird has proven to be a tracking challenge. “He’s a little difficult since the orange tape on his very faded orange band is wearing off,” Ferrara explains.

After hatching at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the bird returned in 2016 to breed, and has been there every summer since as a very active Piping Plover dad. Now, he is feeding and resting the winter months away down in Florida.

These little birds with big migration stories illustrate the importance of conservation across their entire flyway.

Audubon Works to Protect Coastlines Now and into the Future

In all, Ferrara and I tallied 33 Piping Plovers, including eight banded birds. As sea level rise and storm surge threaten their habitat, our protection efforts on their nesting and resting areas that remain become much more important. From Audubon Florida to Audubon Great Lakes, from local community members who volunteer to protect the birds to state and federal agencies that partner with us to enhance rules and regulations to safeguard the birds, we all must work together to improve Piping Plover numbers across their range.

In Michigan, Audubon Great Lakes conducted outreach activities at Sleeping Bear Dunes last summer, in partnership with National Park Service, aimed at educating beachgoers about the importance of sharing the shore with plovers.  This year—thanks to the dedicated efforts of researchers, agencies, volunteers, and other members of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team—Great Lakes Piping Plovers recently celebrated a second record-breaking breeding season! 80 pairs of Piping Plovers nested in the Great Lakes region, the highest number of pairs since being listed as endangered and eight more pairs than last year.

Meanwhile, in the Sunshine State, Audubon Florida coastal biologists work with partners and volunteers on 300+ beaches, barrier islands, and bay sites to monitor and protect sea and shorebirds. Our policy team pounds the pavement to ensure adequate funding for conservation while improving local, state, and federal rules that protect these iconic species.

Want to join our volunteer flock? Learn how by clicking here for Audubon Florida sites, and here for Audubon Great Lakes sites.