Spring is a special time on Nantucket for those of us who live here year round. The days are getting longer, and there is a bit of light at the end of the winter tunnel – because no matter what happens from here on, January and February are already behind us! Houses and businesses start to open up and the familiar faces of seasonal residents will soon be showing up on Main Street – a sure sign of the warmer days to come!

And so it is also with our breeding birds. Tree swallows, red-winged black-birds, osprey, and shorebirds are just starting to show up to begin their nesting seasons (check out our previous blog post by Danielle O’Dell for more about Nantucket’s “Signs of Spring”). It’s interesting to think about where our seasonal bird residents have been since they left us in the fall. While a great deal of information is known about bird migration, we still have a lot to learn. Gaining a better understanding of where these birds go and what environmental conditions they face when they are not with us is critical to conservation efforts.

For the past seven years, our Science and Stewardship Department has played a small role in a very large, collaborative effort aimed at better understanding the annual movement patterns of one of our beach nesting shorebird species: the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). A collaboration of researchers and managers all along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, working under the umbrella of the American Oystercatcher Working Group, are undertaking a coordinated, widespread effort to band and re-sight oystercatchers so that we can learn about their complex patterns of movement and dispersal. Associated with this group are numerous color-banding and/or re-sighting projects in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. The color-bands used contain a unique 2-3 character code with a color combination specific to the state where the bird was banded (Massachusetts bands are yellow with black codes). Band re-sight data enables researchers to identify and track individual birds and piece together information about their movements without having to re-capture them.

This work has been underway on Nantucket since 2005 and includes many collaborators, including NCF’s Science and Stewardship Department. As a result, a large percentage of our oystercatchers are now individually color banded. Of the 23 pairs that nested on NCF-owned beaches during the 2013 season, 29 adults and 16 chicks were banded. Oystercatchers can be extremely long-lived – it is not uncommon for birds to live at least 10 years, and there are records of banded individuals surviving up to age 17. Therefore, color banded individuals are often re-sighted many times over multiple years on both the breeding and wintering grounds.


A flock of oystercatchers on their wintering grounds in Florida.

It’s not uncommon for researchers (no matter how professional and objective we try to be) to become somewhat attached to our study subjects. So when our breeding birds return at the end of a long winter, it is a cause for celebration. However, this feeling is intensified when we welcome back individually banded birds that we have known and followed over multiple years. Because they are “labeled,” we know where they prefer to nest, who they have mated with in the past, whether or not they tend to be successful parents, and which banded birds they are related to. We work hard to protect their habitats and educate beach visitors about the importance of shorebird conservation. And when we watch their chicks successfully learn to fly and head south at the end of the season, we feel a sense of accomplishment that sometimes goes just a little beyond the level of professional satisfaction.


Banded oystercatchers from multiple states observed by Doris and Pat Leary in Cedar Key, Florida.

However, it’s important for us to remember that many of “our” birds become “their” birds when they leave at the end of the season. Due to the efforts of the Working Group’s range-wide collaborators, many of our oystercatchers are watched, monitored and protected long after they leave Nantucket to head south to their respective wintering grounds. An amazing amount of data is being collected by these folks, and it is providing invaluable information about where “our” oystercatchers over-winter, as well as the places they stop along the way to and from Nantucket.

Below is a summary of some of the birds that we expect to see returning over the coming weeks, and what we know about where they spend their time when they are away from us – thanks to the year-round efforts our Working Group colleagues.

Yellow-banded W8 was our first returning oystercatcher this year, observed by Trish Pastulak and identified by Edie Ray, who puts an amazing amount of time and effort into banding and re-sighting birds on Nantucket. W8 showed up at Jackson Point in Madaket on February 23rd, which is one of the earliest spring sightings of an oystercatcher on Nantucket. This bird was banded as a chick on Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard in June, 2010. It was next re-sighted on Nantucket at Eel Point in June, 2012 and has since been seen regularly during the breeding season at various locations on the western end of the island. Oystercatchers reach reproductive maturity at about 3 years of age, so we expect that this bird will soon be pairing up to breed- perhaps this season.

Yellow-banded E2 is a regular at Eel Point, where it was banded as a breeding adult in July, 2005 by Sean Murphy. Sean conducted his PhD research at CUNY at Staten Island on the movement patterns of oystercatchers nesting on Nantucket and Tuckernuck, and has been an instrumental player in this project ever since. E2 has regularly been re-sighted during the winter in Cedar Key, Florida, which is on the Gulf of Mexico side about 1 hour southwest of Gainesville. In fact, it was most recently observed and photographed by Doris and Pat Leary about a week ago, on March 15th. The Leary’s have been observing and recording banded birds in Florida for many years, with support from Audubon of Florida, and much of what we know about the winter distribution of oystercatchers in this area comes from their amazing work. We are expecting E2 to return to Eel Point any day now!


Yellow-banded TO (left) showing its nano-tag antenna and E2 (right) observed on March 15, 2014 in Cedar Key, FL by Doris and Pat Leary.

Yellow-banded T0 is another regular commuter between Nantucket and Cedar Key. This bird was banded in May, 2008 as a breeding adult on the north beach of Coatue by Sean Murphy and has regularly been observed overwintering in Cedar Key by the Learys. This past summer, it was captured again on Coatue by Pam Loring, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is tracking oystercatchers and common tern movement patterns in Nantucket Sound for her dissertation research (you can read more about Pam’s project in our previous blog post “What are those towers on Coatue and Eel Point all about?”). Pam fitted T0 with a nano-tag: a digitally coded radio transmitter and antenna that can be detected by an array of automated radio telemetry stations placed on towers erected in strategic locations around Nantucket Sound. Doris and Pat Leary re-sighted and photographed this bird in Cedar Key on March 15, 2014 and confirmed that it was still carrying the transmitter. Pam will be attempting to re-capture and remove transmitters from her study subjects once her research is completed.


Yellow-banded AA1 just after being banded as a chick by Edie Ray on Coatue in July, 2013.

Red-banded T5 nested on Coatue in 2012 and 2013. So why doesn’t this bird have yellow bands, like the rest of our nesting oystercatchers? Red bands with white codes are used in Georgia, and this bird was banded in late December, 2008 on Little Saint Simmons Island by Brad Winn, a key researcher with the Working Group. It was subsequently observed in several other locations in Georgia during the 2010-2012 non-breeding seasons. It was also seen at North Brigantine Natural Area in New Jersey in August, 2010, when it was likely en-route to Georgia. For several years prior to nesting on Nantucket, this bird was recorded at other sites in southeastern Massachusetts, including Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, South Sunken Meadow in Barnstable, and the north shore of Tuckernuck Island. Red-banded T5 and its mate, yellow-banded JY (which has also been observed in Georgia during the winter) successfully fledged one chick on Coatue this past summer – yellow-banded AA1. But instead of following its parents to Georgia, this juvenile was observed overwintering in Cedar Key by the Learys.


Yellow-banded AA1 (center) overwintering at Horseshoe Beach, just north of Cedar Key, Florida.

Yellow-banded F3 was banded as a breeding adult in June, 2006 by Sean Murphy in Polpis Harbor, and has nested in this area of the island every year since. F3 is usually one of our first breeding birds to return at the beginning of the season. In 2013, we located its nest on April 11th, it hatched on May 8th, and all three chicks had successfully fledged by June 25th. F3 appears to winter on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, as it was observed there several times during the non-breeding season in 2006 and 2009. It was also observed on South Beach in Chatham on Cape Cod in September, 2009. Similar data collected on a number of additional banded birds indicate that oystercatchers breeding in southeastern Massachusetts move around quite a bit after the breeding season is over to feed in groups and fatten up before departing for their wintering grounds in the late fall.


Yellow-banded F3 nests in Polpis Harbor and has been observed on Hilton Head Island, SC during the winter.

If this information is interesting to you, head out to Nantucket’s beaches this season and see if you can find any banded oystercatchers. These beautiful birds are large and easy to observe, and with patience, their bands can be observed with a good pair of binoculars. Please respect signs and fencing that are put in place to protect nests and chicks. The American Oystercatcher Working Group’s website page contains all kinds of information about this species, including a detailed explanation about how to identify banded birds.  And if you see a banded bird and record the code, you can enter your data on the website and find out where it was banded and where else it has been observed.

Happy Spring and Happy Birding!