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American oystercatchers on NC coast prove it: Birds return to same spot every year

The photo this week is of an American oystercatcher by Jeff Lewis.
The photo this week is of an American oystercatcher by Jeff Lewis. Jeff Lewis

Last Monday I located three leg-banded American oystercatchers out of a flock of 19 at Ocean Isle Beach.

I was able to read the lettering on the bands and confirmed that they were all birds I had previously seen at the exact same location. One was banded as a chick in 2007 at Cape Hatteras; one was banded as a chick in 2014 at Wrightsville Beach,; and one was banded as a chick in 2010 at Little Egg Inlet in New Jersey.

This is the third consecutive winter I have documented the Hatteras bird at Ocean Isle; third consecutive for the New Jersey bird; and the second winter out of three I have found the Wrightsville Beach bird there.

It is clear that these birds are returning to the exact same wintering grounds year after year. Though they all go back to the areas where they were hatched each summer, all have settled on the east end of Ocean Isle Beach and the west end of Holden Beach for the winter.

This illustrates that birds do not just move about randomly, flying willy-nilly here and there. No, birds know where they are heading, how they will get there, and where they are going to stop along the way. Bird-banders have long known this. Banding stations along migration routes regularly record the same individual being caught in the same net on the same day in consecutive years.

You can bet the flock of white-throated sparrows that visits your feeders every winter contains multiple repeat patrons from year to year. The ruby-throated hummingbirds that constantly buzz your feeder in September have likely been there before.

Some years ago a rufous hummingbird was banded in Charlotte and subsequently returned to the same feeder every winter for five consecutive years.

Even the neotropical migrants that winter in Central and South America have been found to return to the same patch of rainforest. I imagine it is quite stressful for them when they arrive one year and their patch is gone. Can they adapt on the fly and find another appropriate area? I’m not sure we have that answer yet, but I have my doubts that they can be consistently successful at that.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.