Three additional reddish egrets will be studied later this summer at ‘Ding’
A study at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge will start tracking three additional reddish egrets by the end of summer, increasing the total count to five from the refuge.
“We learn so much from each bird,” Avian Research and Conservation Institute Executive Director Ken Meyer said, who is leading the study. His organization does ecological research on rare birds to find information that will inform conservation and management action of the birds.
“They are always declining,” he said of rare birds. “A lot of times we don’t know why, or don’t know how to fix it, so that is our mission of our research group.”
ARCI brought their research to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to research the reddish egret, which resulted in tagging two birds at “Ding” Darling almost two years ago.
“Most of the time (they) stayed within the refuge, or in Pine Island Sound or Wildlife Drive, where we captured them,” he said of the two tagged reddish egrets.
At the beginning of nesting season, they both went into the wading bird colony in the refuge, where they spent a lot of time together. They were seen sleeping in the same tree, which lead Meyer to believe they were a couple. Although they may have tried to nest, he said the reddish egrets were not there long enough to raise the young to survival.
“One of them had been going across Pine Island Sound to Pine Island before nesting season,” he said. “In May that same bird all of a sudden left. The other bird stayed in the refuge.”
The reddish egret that was flying to Pine Island moved further up the gulf coast a good 150 to 160 miles away. Meyer said the bird flew the distance in a day and settled in an area where it stayed for more than a month before returning to “Ding” in June.
“That bird knew. It wasn’t wandering,” he said.
On June 29, Meyer said about a week and a half ago they confirmed the reddish egret flew to Cedar Key, the farthest north a reddish egret has been seen nesting in Florida.
“We don’t know if that is good news, or just news,” he said.
The reddish egret has been steadily declining over the years, which was one of the reasons the research was prompted to find answers of why. Meyer said the declining numbers might be because there is too much competition between the reddish egrets.
“They are very defensive of their favorite places. Maybe they are moving out and moving further up the coast,” he said.
The population on the gulf coast of Texas, however, has the largest population of reddish egrets in the U.S., with a couple thousand nests.
The population of wading birds crashed as a result to the hat-making trade in the late 1880s.
“They wanted feathers. They were shooting thousands of wading birds in Florida for feathers for the hat trade,” he said. “Almost all of them except the reddish egret has recovered.”
Since then the species has not fully recovered. In the late 1990s, another decline was noticed for the reddish egret, again without any explanation of why. Meyer said there are as few as 250 to 400 reddish egret nests in Florida, which is very few.
By tagging the egrets, he hopes to answer such questions as how they move over the years during breeding and winter season, where they go and how well they survive when traveling, if they change their nest sites, and is society damaging their habitat where they nest.
“I think it has something to do where they catch fish,” he said. “It isn’t easy to find good places to hunt fish. We want to know more about that to protect the few places that are important to them.”
The first two birds were tagged without any financial support from the refuge or the Friends of “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, which has a price tag of $10,000 a bird.
Reddish egrets, Meyer said are the most difficult of the wading birds to catch, because they do not want to chance the birds abandoning the nest, and therefore losing the nesting attempt. There are many different ways to catch a bird safely, including trapping the reddish egrets while on their feeding grounds.
“They are so beautiful,” Meyer said of their ritual when feeding. “Their behavior is so odd. They look like they are dancing and look like they are drunk. They jump up straight and flutter their wings. They scare little schools of small fish. They startle the fish and get them to scoot around in shallow water so the birds can see them.”
Capturing on their feeding grounds is often successful because they like revisiting their favorite feeding places. Meyer said they are able to get close to birds, herding them into an area where they release a spring net, safely capturing them.
Once the birds are captured, a transmitter, made to sit comfortably on the bird, is attached. Meyer said it weighs less than three-thirds of the bird’s body weight, even less than what their eggs weigh.
“We pride ourselves on being very careful about doing this,” he said.
Once the transmitter is attached to the bird, ARCI can watch the reddish egret by satellite for up to seven years.
“Most of the time, the birds we tag don’t live that long,” Meyer said.
The solar-powered transmitter helps the organization learn about the birds by going to a particular site that allows them to view where the it is, and where it has been.
The refuge said if the research went well, they would ask the Friends of the Refuge if they would support further study.
“The first two birds went really well,” he said. “The Friends organization has given us funding to tag three more birds and do a study on fish the prey the reddish egret catches – to determine what fish the bird needs.”
In addition to the friends donating money, the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society and a private donor teamed up to provide the rest of the funding.
“It’s really a nice joint effort,” Meyer said. “One of the greatest places we have ever worked is Ding Darling and that whole community the refuge, the Audubon Society and now the Friends of the organization. They love what we are doing.”
He said “Ding” Darling is one of the best conservation communities in Florida, if not the best.
“They are really outstanding in that respect,” Meyer said.