Rare Ferns and Tiny Nests
There is a group of barrier islands formed by outflow sediment along the mouth of the Copper River Delta. They are shaped by coastal currents flowing parallel to the mainland. Currently, the vegetated parts of these islands are protected; the sandy, non-vegetated areas are not. This week, I was able to be part of a team that surveyed the non-vegetated parts of Egg Island for bird and motor vehicle use. So, for three days, I walked around the island in the sunshine and looked for birds. The trip was a huge success. The most exciting find for me was the Semipalmated Plover nest. As my partner and I approached the mating pair’s turf, we heard their alarm call and then spotted them scurrying around on the beach. They seemed agitated, but would not leave that area of the beach. We figured out right away that they had a nest nearby. As we walked around in search of the nest and approached a small area of the beach, the plovers began to perform a distraction display. A distraction display is a behavior that some birds and other animals use to draw a predator away from a nest or young. Bless their little hearts, the pair had inadvertently lead us right to their nest! It was so amazing to see them putting themselves in harm’s way in order to protect their clutch. Seeing those little birds pretend to limp around made me fall in love with them even more, as it was such an interesting behavior to witness. Eventually we spotted the tiny nest bowl in the ground, with three beautiful eggs in it. The bowl was just a small dug out indent in the sand, with a few bits of dried grass and two tall pieces of beach rye barely concealing it. Even so, that nest was hard to spot, which makes me glad that this project is working towards protecting these areas where one who is not looking for such things could easily crush a nest with their boot or ATV tire. We quickly collected our data and moved along so we wouldn’t stress them out any longer.
Further inland, in a vegetated spot surrounded by non-vegetated sand dunes, we spotted a Least Sandpiper performing a diversion display similar to that of the Semipalmated Plover. Another score! We found this nest of four beautiful eggs more quickly than the last one, even though it was camouflaged perfectly with the brush. Shortly after this find, we flushed a Red-necked Phalarope right at the line between a mudflat and vegetated area. It’s fascinating to me how tiny and well-constructed these nests are. This one was perfectly nestled into a narrow patch of tall dry grass, completely out of sight. I feel so lucky that I get to see the innate behaviors that result in such beautiful construction. All of the effort and energy they pour out of their little bodies is instantly put into perspective in my mind when I see a nest. The feeling is profound in me every time as I realize the magnitude of this effort.
During the remainder of the trip, we passed by huge gull and Bank Swallow colonies. Bank Swallows dig out these nest holes right into the vertical face of the sand dunes. It’s such a cool thing to see them flying in and out of these little sand tunnels. During the last day of our trip, we accompanied a fellow crew member in her hunt for some rare plants. Christina Rinas, an ecology tech working here for the summer, was searching for Botrychium, a rare fern. After two full days of looking with no luck, I knew she had good news as I saw her running excitedly over to us. She had found Botrychium! Christina then conducted a vegetation survey of the area and collected a sample of the fern to send out for identification and genetic analysis.
This island was buzzing with wildlife activity. It was so beautiful to be surrounded by it. Every direction you looked, at all hours of the day, there was life.