Smile

Small Bird. Massive Journey.


By David Addison

Senior Biologist, Conservancy of Southwest Florida Science Department


I’ve gas-bagged about this little bird before (to Conservancy staff), so this is mostly for new arrivals; however, this is a continuing story. I first noticed this color-banded semipalmated plover (SEPL) in September 2010.

Since then, I have seen it regularly on Hideaway Beach on Marco Island and on Sand Dollar Island Critical Wildlife, typically around the 15th of April and the 15th September.

Obviously, it possesses quite the biological clock. It was one of eight SEPLs that were color-banded at their nesting grounds on Fish Island in late June 2010 by a team of Canadian wildlife biologistsSemipalmated Plover M. Fish Island is located in the MacKenzie River Delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

As the crow flies, Fish Island is roughly 3,600 mi. from Marco Island. Unlike sea turtles, SEPLs breed annually so this bird makes a 7,200 mi. round trip each year.

I last saw it in April 2015, so it’s made 5 circuits since 2010. Do the math and the numbers get pretty impressive, but that’s the way of nearly all migratory shorebirds.

They live on the wind. Also keep in mind that SEPLs weigh about 2 ounces, are a little over 7 inches long and have a wingspan of around 19 inches. The longest known life span of any SEPL is a 9.2 years.

When this bird was banded, it was on a nest that contained 4 eggs, so this individual is at least 6 years old and counting.

More entertaining than you might think

When I do bird surveys, I nearly always take my camera and a fancy long lens. The entire mess weighs a ton, but it’s worth the effort.

If I see a banded bird, I can photograph it and enlarge the image so I can better discern the color patterns and read numbers if they are present. The attached photos are of Smile as this SEPL was named by the banders.

The first image is a mug shot for my Canadian bander friends, while the next four are a sequence in which Smile proves that people are not the only species whose feet periodically turn to clay.

After carefully pulling an exceptionally long worm out of the sand, Mr. Worm somehow slipped from Smile’s beak only to be nabbed again before it hit the sand.

I got the sequence completely by accident and got a good laugh out of it when I downloaded the images. You can see the sequence of shots below:

I’ve seen any number of shorebirds slip off scarps, fall on their cloaca when their feet slip while pulling a worm out of the sand, and generally goof up to know that we’re all in the tripping business together.

The cool thing about birds is that even when they trip, they can save face by spreading their wings.

We are not so fortunate. Well… at least I’m not.

Black-bellied plover: WIKIPEDIA

Finally, when I contacted the banders about seeing Smile again last April, they told me they had moved their operation to the high Artic at Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area, Bathurst Island, Nunavut where they have started color banding black-bellied plovers and tracking them with solar PITs.

Some of these birds have migrated to Cuba so there’s a remote chance of seeing one of them if it stops in south Florida to refuel.

The tracks are really cool and can be found by clicking here.


I’d encourage you all when you’re on a beach to start looking at birds’ legs, especially those of plovers, American oystercatchers, white pelicans and terns and gulls.

If you see color bands record the what color bands are on which legs and the location where you saw the bird. A bander somewhere will be really happy. Also check the legs of dead birds, usually terns, gulls and pelicans for metal bands. Those are numbered USFWS bands. The nine-number sequence is so small that you need a spotting scope to read them. Color-banded red knots also show up seasonally (fall, spring). Their numbers are imbedded in small flags. The light green bands are from north Florida. A red flag would indicate that the bird was banded in Chile. If you see one of those flags, buy yourself a good beer.


Help a Bander Out

If you see color bands, record the what color bands are on which legs and the location where you saw the bird. A bander somewhere will be really happy.

Also check the legs of dead birds, usually terns, gulls and pelicans for metal bands. Those are numbered USFWS bands. The nine-number sequence is so small that you need a spotting scope to read them.


Famous Birds

Color-banded red knots also show up seasonally (fall, spring). Their numbers are imbedded in small flags. The light green bands are from north Florida. A red flag would indicate that the bird was banded in Chile. If you see one of those flags, buy yourself a good beer. Moonbird (B95) is a famous banded red knot.

Wisdom the Laysan Albatross — first banded in 1956 at Midway Atoll- is also pretty famous, and still laying eggs! (NBCNews.com)

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