Audubon North Carolina Staff Profile Series – Robbie Fearn

Audubon North Carolina has an amazing staff across the state dedicating their time and expertise to protecting birds and their habitats, and engaging others to support bird conservation efforts. In this blog series, we will introduce you, our supporters, to the names and faces behind Audubon NC. 

photo-5This month, get to know Robbie Fearn, Center Director at the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Corolla. Robbie oversees Audubon’s conservation work in northeastern NC, engaging citizens and scientists to understand the importance of preserving bird habitats on the Outer Banks.

Describe your job with Audubon NC.

I oversee the day-to-day operations and development of the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center as it evolves into a research and education campus tucked quietly into a pristine wildlife preserve. Here, we will advance our knowledge and love of wild places, and help our communities, people and wildlife respond to a changing environment.

What inspired you to pursue a career in conservation?

I was always an outdoorsy type, but my first career was in the professional theater, which brought me to the Outer Banks of NC. Here, my future wife Pamela and I founded a sea turtle conservation group, and the rest is history!

What brought you to work with Audubon NC for the benefit of birds?

After a long sojourn through zoos, wildlife hospitals and nature centers in New England and the Deep South, we were ready to return to where it all began. When this job on the Outer Banks was available, and we could come back home, near family and friends in a place we love, doing important work… we jumped at it.

Why do you feel it’s important to protect and conserve birds in North Carolina? Globally?

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” said Aldo Leopold, a great American conservationist/writer. Humans are changing the Earth at an unprecedented scale. I believe in saving all the cogs.

How is your work with Audubon specifically helping to protect birds in NC? What particular birds does your work help protect?

We work to save and restore the great landscape of the Currituck Sound by focusing on the infrastructure of the ecology. Here, we are preserving and enhancing places for birds and other creatures to thrive. Because Audubon’s climate science identifies this space as being in the top 2% in the country of places critical for bird survival, we have an obligation to make sure it is here and functioning in perpetuity.

We also focus on the following priority species:

What is your favorite bird? Why?

I love a Chuck-will’s Widow. It is a secretive forest bird whose distinctive song – similar to a Whip-poor Wills’, always reminds me of summer nights when the world is glorious, peaceful and alive with promise.

What is the most exciting bird you’ve ever spotted? What happened?

My first wood stork. Pamela and I were canoeing in a meandering river in coastal Georgia. We rounded a bend and this prehistoric looking creature arose right in front of us. Magical!

What advice do you have for someone interested in becoming involved with bird conservation efforts?

Get involved in one project; it can be small. I started making a bluebird box trail as a boy scout. Volunteering leads to connections that lead to more opportunities.

What would you like people to know about birds that they may not already know?

Birds are our constant companions. The House sparrow, which evolved in the Middle East, lives at almost every site on the planet where people live. Birds are harbingers of joy and sorrow; they provide metaphors and meaning in our lives. Not bad for a bunch of dwarf dinosaurs.

Robbie earned his bachelor’s degree in Communications and Theater from UNC-G. He earned his master’s in Environmental Studies with a Communications concentration from the Antioch New England Graduate School. He holds a certificate in Non-Profit Executive Leadership from The National Graduate School of Quality Management and another from the Alabama Association of Non-Profits.

Robbie’s Publications

  • Author: Whole Terrain, Communiqué, Wild Magazine, Cape Cod Times
  • Editor/Publisher: Triton – A Polar Bear’s First Year and Small World/ Big Bear

DSC_0540Want to learn more about the team members of Audubon North Carolina? Click here to continue our staff profile series.

How Banding Supports Bird Conservation Science

Bird banding is a valuable tool in the study and conservation of many bird species. In this series, we’ll explain bird banding practices and explore insights gleaned from the observation of banded birds here on North Carolina’s coast and beyond.

What Is Bird Banding?

In bird banding, a bander places a small, lightweight ring around a bird’s leg. The band, which may be metal or plastic, usually carries a unique code of letters or numbers, identifying that individual. It can also identify a group that the individual is a part of, such as all birds that hatched from a particular site in a particular year.

The bander may also apply multiple un-coded bands of different colors to different locations on a bird’s legs. In this case, it’s the combination of colors and locations that identifies the bird to human observers.

Other techniques are also used to mark birds. Geese, which spend much of their time with their legs underwater and unobservable, sometimes receive collars, and large birds like wading birds, gulls, or raptors may be marked by patagial tags, which are plastic tabs attached to their wings. You can see different types of bands here.

Photo credit: Murray N. Hadley, Frisco, Hatteras Island, NC.

Photo credit: Murray N. Hadley, Frisco, Hatteras Island, NC.

Why Band Birds 

Birds are, by and large, highly mobile creatures, crossing continents and even hemispheres in their annual migrations. Banding—also called ringing—has been used for over a century by biologists to study the movements, behavior, and survival of birds. Since members of a species generally look alike to people, bird banding uniquely marks individuals so they can be recognized if they are seen again, allowing scientists and other interested parties to track individuals over time.

To understand the entire life-cycle of shorebirds and waterbirds—where they go, how long they live, what resources they need—biologists band and track many species of birds, including shorebirds.

Shorebirds—relatively long-legged sandpipers, plovers, and their relatives—are ideal subjects for banding since they spend a lot of time walking, making it easier to see bands on their legs. However, even tiny songbirds can be banded.

By tracking the movements of individuals, biologists learn about their movements and migrations, longevity, mortality, population demographics, behavior, and much more. For example, by banding Red Knots wintering in southern Chile and Argentina, researchers learned that members of this population, the rufa subspecies, stop over at various sites along the U.S. Atlantic coast, most famously in Delaware Bay but at many other locations on the Atlantic seaboard, including North Carolina.

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

Although banding provides fascinating glimpses into the life history and behavior of birds, it also is a valuable tool in conservation. Every time a banded bird is observed, it sends an important message: “I am here. This is what I need.” By looking at the sites birds use, we can learn where to focus conservation efforts and track the health of populations.

For example, the Piping Plover is a tiny shorebird found nesting in the Great Plains, on the shore of the Great Lakes, and along the American and Canadian Atlantic seaboard. By banding individuals from these three breeding populations, researchers found out where they spend their winters. It turns out that the different populations tend to winter in different general areas.

The Great Lakes population favors the southeastern U.S., so protecting that group’s wintering grounds means working for conservation there. Meanwhile, the location of most of the wintering Atlantic Piping Plovers was not known until recent surveys in the Bahamas turned up over 1,000 Piping Plovers, most from the Atlantic breeding population, as revealed by their bands. Biologists who work hard to protect these birds when they are nesting now also know where to work to protect them while there are wintering.

What to Look For

Spotting and reporting banded birds is a great way to become a citizen scientist and contribute to knowledge of birds.

The easiest way to read a band code is to find one on a deceased bird. Though finding a dead bird is a sad event, useful information may be obtained from one that is banded. Check the legs for bands and remove the band or write down any numbers or letters on the band. Also note the date when and location where you found it. Always use common sense and wash your hands after handling a dead animal!

Since bands on shorebirds are generally easy to notice, pack your binoculars, spotting scope, or camera for your next beach outing. When birdwatching, take note of birds’ legs and look for bands. Do take care, though, not to flush flocks in the course of looking for bands.

If you find a band on a live bird, observe carefully and patiently and record the following information:

  1. The location of the bands. Note if bands are on the left or right leg. Left and right leg should always be the bird’s left and right, not yours. Note which bands are above or below the ankle joint. The joint in the middle of a bird’s leg is actually its ankle, which explains why birds look like they have a backwards-bending knee.
  2. The color of the bands and the color of the writing, if any, on the bands. Many banded birds wear only a metal band with engraved numbers. These bands are not generally designed to be read in the field, though careful observation, patience, good optics, and good luck sometimes make it possible. Other birds will carry larger bands with larger numbers and letters. These field-readable bands are designed to be read on a free wild bird in the field. Usually there are only a few characters in the band code, making it easier to read.
  3. The code, if any, that is on the bands.
  4. The date and location of your observation.

Reading bands can take some persistence and practice, and it helps to know what to look for. The American Oystercatcher Working Group has a guide to banded oystercatchers, which is also generally applicable to other species as well.

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

Once you have made your observation, please report it to the right band clearinghouse. You can email our staff to help determine where your band report should go or refer to the websites below.

Share Your Holiday with Shorebirds

Summer has officially begun and many people are flocking to the coast for a day at the beach. While you’re enjoying some fun in the sun, remember, you aren’t the only one using the sand and surf.

Nesting season is in full swing from May through August and many of your favorite birds will rely on you to share the beach this summer. This is a crucial time for beach nesting birds like the American Oystercatcher and Black Skimmer. By taking small simple actions to help protect their nesting habitat, you can help them raise the next generation.

Black Skimmer by Donald Mullaney.

Black Skimmer by Donald Mullaney.

Want to help birds thrive all summer long? Just follow these simple steps next time you plan a day at the beach.

Audubon’s Tips to Share the Beach

  • American Oystercatcher by Meryl Lorenzo/Audubon Photography Award

    American Oystercatcher by Meryl Lorenzo/Audubon Photography Award

    Respect protected areas and signs. Birds, eggs, nests and chicks are well-camouflaged and disturbance by people and their pets can cause birds to abandon their eggs and young.

  • Avoid disturbing groups of birds that are nesting or feeding. If birds take flight, call loudly or act agitated it means you are too close.
  • Always aim to keep your dog on a leash and away from the birds. Shorebirds perceive people and pets as predators.
  • Please don’t leave trash or fishing line on the beach. Take your trash with you and place in an appropriate trash container. Trash attracts real predators such as gulls, crows, raccoons and foxes. Fishing line entangles and kills birds.

Trouble Dates for Birds

Holiday weekends bring even more people to the coast, and you can do your part to remind everyone you know to share the beach.

  • Memorial Day Weekend
  • July 4th Weekend
  • Labor Day

Share this post to remind your friends and family to help protect nesting shorebirds.

Experience Birds with an Audubon Volunteer

May is Audubon’s National Get Outside month. Audubon’s Beach Bird Stewards will be stationed at the South end of Wrightsville Beach helping beachgoers observe nesting shorebirds and understand the importance of sharing the beach. Watch this short video to learn more about the volunteer program.

For more information on Audubon North Carolina’s Share the Beach initiative, visit our website

Spring Creeps Slowly onto the Outer Banks

Please welcome Audubon North Carolina’s Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary Director Robbie Fearn. Robbie will direct Audubon’s restoration and revitalization efforts for the Audubon Sanctuary and the adjacent Currituck Sound.

Spring creeps slowly onto the northern Outer Banks. The cold Atlantic and still cool Sounds holding daytime temperature down a few degrees from what they are just slightly inland. But still one of our first signs of spring is, as it is across the eastern United States is the blooming of the shad bush, a lovely white understory tree or shrub that blooms while much of the rest of the forest is still drab. Just ahead of the cherries the shadbush announces the real warm up of Spring.

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It is called the shadbush or shad blow because its blooming coincides with the anadromous springtime fish runs of the shad. Shad runs were a critical component of Native American and colonial American culture. So important were these runs to the economic life of early America the shad was described as “The Founding Fish” by author John McPhee. So having the shrub announce the run made it a treasure plant on the landscape.

The shadbush has another name in the colder climes of New England, where it was traditionally known a serviceberry. Because the shadbush blooms when the ground first thaws, the story goes that it launched a season of burial, when the ground was finally warm enough to bury the dead of winter, who had rested on ice until the bloom was on the bush.

Another tale says it was when mountain passes became open and circuit-riding preachers came back to town. But the name seems to derive from a European fruit with a similar name and habit, the sorbus. Often fiction is more fun than fact and its bloom did herald those spring services.

The shadbush is a plant of many names; it is also known as Juneberry for it is also an early fruiting tree. A member of the rose family, like apples and cherries, it produces bright red to purple berries beloved of birds and man. Though Man rarely gets them for Robins, Brown Thrashers, Catbirds and Cedar Waxwings will all descend upon the fruiting Juneberry. As many as 35 species of birds have been noted feeding on the berries.

Native Americans considered shadbush berries an important part of pemmican.

This is a great wildlife plant to add to your property for blooms in early spring, lovely June berries and pretty fall foliage. Plant it and let it announce spring to you each year, as it has for generations, as it does for us each year at the Audubon Sanctuary.

To ensure we can continue to protect birds and wildlife at the Audubon Sanctuary, click here to make a contribution.

Quest for Banded Birds: The 18-Year Journey of a Brown Pelican

Bird banding is an essential piece of collecting valuable data and understanding bird conservation. In this series, we’ll explore the necessity of bird banding practices and explore insights found through the shared data of our birds from North Carolina’s coast to the entire Atlantic Flyway.

Please welcome Coastal Biologist Lindsay Addison.

This band traveled for 18 years on the left leg of a Brown Pelican.

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

Photo credit: Lindsay Addison

The pelican received the numbered metal band as a chick on July 11, 1997 on an island in Oregon Inlet when it was too young to fly. It was found dead on Beacon Island in Ocracoke Inlet this April when we were visiting the island to put up signs and check on early nesting. It was thin but had no apparent injuries. It’s possible this pelican died of old age.

As pelicans go, the pelican that wore this band was an older bird. A 60-year study of banded Brown Pelicans found that only about 30 percent of fledglings survive their first year and fewer than 2 percent survive beyond 10 years. However, they have the capacity to live for much longer.

The oldest known Brown Pelican was 43.

Pelicans tend to occupy the same colony sites year after year, if the site remains safe and productive. Pelicans also tend to nest at or near the site where they fledged.  We only know where this pelican was born and where it died, but we can speculate that it nested in North Carolina, potentially at Oregon Inlet, possibly on the same island where it hatched, or maybe on Beacon Island about 75 miles to the south. We can also imagine that it wintered to the south, as is typical for pelicans, perhaps within North Carolina or perhaps in Florida or Georgia or even the Caribbean.

Metal bands like this pelican wore are not designed to be read in the field. Instead, they are typically resighted when the bird is recaptured or found dead. For this reason, it’s a good idea to check the legs carefully if you happen to come across a dead bird.

When you report a metal band number to the Bird Banding Lab, you will receive an email with information about your bird’s banding date and location.

For more information on Audubon NC’s bird banding program and more recorded species, click here.

Spotting and reporting banded birds is a great way to become a citizen scientist and contribute to our knowledge of birds on the coast. Always remember to give birds the space they need to thrive. Click here to learn more about Audubon’s Sharing Our Seas and Shores program.