Nesting Shorebird Monitor
An Interview with Peggy Cook – By Bill McNee
I recently had the good fortune to catch up with Peggy Cook, who has been active in birding circles in St. Johns County for many years. She conducts weekly surveys for FWC Shorebird Surveys during nesting season, as well as monthly counts for Ft. Matanzas National Monument. She also leads monthly bird walks at Ft. Matanzas for the St. Johns County Audubon Society and is active in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
Bill McNee: So glad to hear you’ve fared well this past summer, and even got some traveling in. Tell us a bit about yourself, and your journey in becoming a birder.
Peggy Cook: I grew up in South Florida (Stuart), however, I’ve lived in Crescent Beach for the past 39 years. I’ve probably been a member of St. Johns Audubon for 15 years. Crescent Beach is such a special place that I just started watching birds. Then, with the help of the Audubon, I became very interested in bird life here. Being so close to Ft. Matanzas, it became my favorite place!
I remember seeing birds as a kid, but I didn’t pay much attention to them back then. After graduating from the University of Florida, with a degree in medical technology, I realize now that my path to birding was no doubt sown. Professionally, I became a clinical laboratory technologist working in hospitals. Part of that job was counting things (such as bloodwork). So, counting birds instead became a natural step for me when I retired!
Bill M: I understand that one of the species that you track are Black Skimmers. Tell us a bit about what you’ve learned through your ongoing survey work.
Peggy C: Black Skimmers are year-round residents here. The biggest populations are usually seen during the winter months, especially in January. However, the data shows just how much the population can vary year-to-year. The highest count I have recorded over the past ten years was back in January 2014. The numbers have fluctuated significantly, depending on several day-specific factors – including weather and tide-level, and if there were a lot of people walking their dogs out on the Inlet and flats that often chase the birds away, even if temporarily.
Black Skimmers are such cool birds. From their stark back-and-white plumage to the way they skim along the water while feeding, they are truly unique. They drop their slightly longer, lower bill into the water, skimming along until they feel a fish – then quickly close their jaws and whip the fish out of the water. It’s a fascinating and graceful exhibition if you’ve ever seen one in action. They are especially active early in the day and at dusk.
From my observations, I cannot unequivocally say there has been a decline – but it does appear that way. Apparently, there are more nests at Anastasia State Park now than in the past, but historically they have nested at Ft. Matanzas. We just don’t have any now. They are very sensitive to disturbances. They usually hang out on the sand bar in the winter.
Bill M: You’ve been leading monthly bird walks at Ft. Matanzas for St. Johns Audubon for many years. What makes the Inlet so special? Do you have any tips for new visitors?
Peggy C: Ft. Matanzas Inlet is truly a special place, all year long. Every time I go to the Inlet I see and learn something new. Walking in the sand, around the point, takes away all my aches and pains. The tidal flats and salt marshes of the estuary on the river side are especially dynamic, where the saltwater meets fresh. We have a 6-foot tidal range so at low tide large flats are exposed and many birds rest and feed there. It is a constantly shifting landscape of sand. Right now, however, we don’t have much of a sandbar at high tide.
From the beginning of April through mid-August, the area just south of the boardwalk on the river side is protected as a Critical Wildlife Area by the FWC. Unfortunately, the open sand on the southern point of the Inlet is especially vulnerable for nesting shorebirds.
I find it best to visit the Inlet in the early morning – before visitors arrive, especially those that might bring their pets. However, it’s important to check the tides. It is harder to see the birds at high tide. My recommendation is to check the local tide charts and find a sunny day where you can go early in the morning at low-to-mid tide.
Bill M: Two of the species that are protected by the FWC under its “Critical Wildlife Area” mandate are the Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover. They historically have nested on the peninsula. Have you seen the populations increase or decrease in size the past few years?
Peggy C: Unfortunately, we’ve had a significant decrease in nesting of these birds. While there have been a few other years with no nesting, we didn’t have any nests this year at all. No doubt, loss of habitat is partially responsible, but I think that it is mostly due to depredation from fox, raccoon, and opossum, among other predators. We have seen so many opossum tracks. So, while we’re seeing a lot of Least Tern fishing in the estuary, they aren’t nesting here this year.
According to the FWC, Least Terns are colony nesters, meaning they nest in a group which allows them to share information about food sources, as well as detect and mob protect the colony from predators. While colony nesting can be a benefit, it is also a challenge – as the colony can very easily be wiped out by predators, inadvertent human trampling, dogs off-leash or big storms.
We did have a good number of Wilson’s Plover in April – but like the Least Terns, the predators chased the nesting pairs away. The good news is that neither species is now listed as “Endangered” by the Federal government, although both continue to be listed as “Threatened” by the State of Florida.
Wilson’s Plovers are very cool birds. I always love to see the first newly hatched chicks of the season. They are little puff balls on adult sized legs running as fast as they can. They can run as soon as they hatch and are a joyful wonder to see!
Wilson’s Plovers are thought to be monogamous, arriving from South America often paired up. It is especially fun to watch those that aren’t, as they display a very beautiful mating or courtship ritual. Similar to the Least Tern, once a nest is established, Wilson’s Plover are very protective and territorial. Working with other nesting birds, they do a nice job communicating about common threats, including attacking or distracting common enemies. Like Killdeer, they can often be seen performing a broken-wing display to draw predators away from a nest.
I’ve done nest monitoring for the FWC for 14 years, and in years past we had as many as 200 nests, but it has gradually declined to nothing this year. I think it was the predation – the birds realize that and unfortunately don’t come back.
Bill M: Who is “Gimpy Greenhead”?
In January 2020, we first noticed our friend “Gimpy Greenhead” – a Piping Plover with a bit of a limp. He has been wintering at the Inlet ever since. As you can see, he has two color-coded bands that help us ID him, one of which tells us where he was born. Earlier this year, we connected with NJ Fish and Wildlife who shared that he hatched at the Forsythe NWR just north of Atlantic City. We learned that he was the only Piping Plover chick from his brood that survived. In September 2019, before he left NJ, they noticed he was limping. By the time he was first reported in Florida, his foot was all curled up.
Nobody knows how he got injured, but it doesn’t seem to have impacted him significantly. In 2020 and 2021, he was reported nesting at Cape Lookout National Seashore in NC. Apparently, it is very unusual for plovers to not return to the area they were hatched. We also learned that he fledged young in 2020 and although he tried in 2021, he was not as lucky.
Each time we have seen him during the winter months, he has been with two other Piping Plovers, so my theory is that the other two birds might have hatched in NC, and he merely followed them back to their original stomping g
rounds rather than returning to NJ.
We usually start to see the Piping Plovers arrive at the Inlet in early winter, but this year we have already seen several sightings before the end of summer. I have never seen them arrive this early, and we are hoping Gimpy Greenhead returns to our delight. If you visit the Inlet in January or February, go at low tide and you might catch a glimpse of Gimpy on the river side!
Bill M: In closing, it would be great if you could share a couple of birding best practices for our newer birders, so that they can get the most out
of their outdoor experience.
Peggy C: First and foremost, get yourself a good pair of binoculars, and a good
birding guide. I like Sibley’s but there are several good ones out there. In addition, take advantage of the many excellent and free on-line resources available as well, including Audubon’s online bird guide and Cornell’s AllAboutBirds. I encourage everyone to download, learn and use the eBird and Merlin mobile apps, also from Cornell. I especially like the new Sound ID tool in Merlin that allows you to capture bird calls using your mobile phone and ID them. I can’t hear as well as I used to – so I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Most important, be considerate of resting birds. Lastly, find other birders and go on bird walks – you’ll learn so much. St. Johns County has so many great birders who are happy to share their knowledge and experience. Become a member of St. Johns Audubon – it’s not expensive – and check out the many organized bird walks that it regularly conducts. Another way to stay in touch is by visiting the St. Johns Audubon FaceBook page.
About the Author: Bill McNee has been a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, a passion he loves to share with others. Roughly twenty years ago, Bill took up birding and nature photography in a more serious way, as he realized they were a terrific gateway to connect with nature every day. This year he’ll help manage the St. Augustine Circle for Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. He is a former board member of the St. Johns County Audubon Society, for whom he continues to lead bird walks from time-to-time.
If you are a Facebook user, check out First Coast Birding and Beyond, a birding and photography group Bill founded in 2020. While there are quite a few excellent local birding photographers who generously share their work, it’s a great place to learn about and enjoy the birds.