At Englewood FL beach there is often a large group of gulls and terns resting on the beach early in the morning. Most are rather tame so you can walk near them in a non-threatening manner and admire them up close and personal which is quite unusual for wild animals. One thing you may notice is that a small percentage have bands on their legs which enable scientists to follow their movements if the band numbers are reported. Many birds have flown medium to long distances to spend the winter here whereas others remain in the local area or within the Gulf year round. Some bands are colored, some are metal and some are white with dark lettering.
I find it exciting to go on a hunt for these bands and attempt to decipher their stories for each species. One of my greatest finds was a tiny sanderling with colored bands photographed on Knight Island just south of Stump Pass. Some birds can be identified on a website “bandedbirds.org” and others require communication with the banders that handle each species. This sanderling was banded near Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan, at a location where migrating shorebirds refuel on their flight to the Arctic. This minute bird flies at least 2070 miles (in a straight line from Knight Island) to this saline lake in Canada, and then continues to the Arctic tundra nesting areas about 1200 miles further north. Such a minimum 6000 miles round trip is incomprehensible. Obviously the enormous demands of such a migration must be worth the effort and consequent loss of life of birds along the way.
A somewhat larger shorebird, a red knot, was observed among a flock of about 90 birds on a Knight Island beach. This rare bird had a “flag” on its leg which enables a determination of the individual. In this case the bird had been banded on Captiva Island, re-banded in S Carolina and re-sighted numerous times over 8 years. The banding process has enabled scientists to determine that there are separate S American and Florida wintering populations. Red knots fly to the far northern tundra to breed and must re-fuel along the way in strategically placed wetlands, such as Delaware Bay, where they feast on horseshoe crab eggs.
Some of our banded birds live more local lives without continental migrations. A snowy plover with color bands was photographed in the Stump Pass area several times over two winters. This plover was banded as an adult in the FL Panhandle at St Joseph State Park where it was breeding.
Bands can also be found on sea birds that are certainly not rare. For example I have found several ring billed gulls with lettered plastic bands that turned out to be from Minnesota. This seemed a very strange circumstance until I found that the gulls are being banded by Dr Cuthbert at the University of Minnesota in a study of avian flu. There was a concern that flu might be transmitted among poultry flocks by gulls so many were banded to determine where they travel. In the process some interesting data on winter movements have been obtained. For example I found this Minnesota gull (left leg red 78B) at the exact same place at N Manasota Key beach park approximately one year apart. So it appears that these birds are quite faithful to a specific spot every winter!
This winter I have been having a great deal of success finding royal terns with bands on the Englewood public beach. Some have small metal bands which can only be deciphered at death but they last a long time. The plastic bands which are easy to read do not last many years but provide quick data during that time. This royal tern MHY was banded as a chick on an island of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in VA and is wintering here on the FL Gulf coast. I have so far found seven birds marked in this fashion which were banded in VA and GA. A less common band type is two metal bands one of which is readable from top to bottom with a camera zoom. This tern AL67 was banded in Ocracoke, NC and is now 6.5 years old.
I encourage you to try watching sea birds at the beach and looking for the bling on their legs. It is a lot of fun and adds considerably to our knowledge of the ecology of these wonderful birds. Treasure their presence at our beaches and protect them from harm. They enrich our lives and ask for little in return but to be left alone.