Nature has a way of telling stories that often feel more like fairytales. As a field biologist, I have experienced some of my most valued life moments in nature, particularly with birds. I’ve been captivated by birds and their charming behaviors for as long as I can remember. I am privileged to work at the Audubon Society with some of the most vulnerable bird species that call our Gulf Coast beaches home. On December 22, 2019, during the 120th annual Christmas Bird Count, I spotted a color-banded Snowy Plover on Holly Beach in beautiful Cameron Parish, Louisiana. But this wasn’t just any plover. This was Mr. Orange.
As I stood in disbelief snapping photos of this now celebrity plover, it had occurred to me that after many miles on foot and countless hours of careful observation, I have intimately learned Mr. Orange’s wintering and breeding territories, which happens to encompass two Gulf states. This is our story.
I first met Mr. Orange in April of 2017, along the white sandy beaches of Holly Beach, Louisiana. He was a very handsome Snowy Plover indeed, with bold black facial markings and side patches. I learned that he was originally banded 385 miles to the east the summer before in Alabama, along Dauphin Island in July 2016. I saw him briefly a couple more times in those early spring 2017 surveys before he suddenly disappeared.
In August 2017, I moved to Alabama to begin a new coastal stewardship endeavor with the Birmingham Audubon Society and it was there on my very first Dauphin Island survey on August 24, 2017 that I saw Mr. Orange. He stared at me momentarily, as if there was a shared recognition, with his head tilted slightly upward. I knew just then this bird was special. His disappearance from Louisiana in early April now made perfect sense. Dauphin Island was his breeding turf. He persisted here through mid-late September but eventually vanished.
The 2018 nesting season was very busy, as I was learning where birds needed protection across Alabama’s coastal landscape and monitoring nesting outcomes. I had several more run-ins with Mr. Orange from June to August 2018 on Pelican Island, a spit off of Dauphin Island.
By 2019, I returned to Louisiana to pursue more beach nesting bird work in Cameron Parish. On March 28, 2019 I began my long walk along Holly Beach looking for first arrivals of migrating Wilson’s Plovers. Little did I know that I would run into some Snowy Plovers, and lo and behold, there was Mr. Orange! I could not believe my eyes. Together we had traversed the Gulf Coast, sharing space in two states across three years. I felt an instant connection and was overjoyed to learn we both safely returned home to Louisiana.
Approximately 16 days later, I was notified by Andrew Haffenden of Dauphin Island that Mr. Orange had safely returned to his breeding territory in Alabama, a 385-mile one-way journey.
On June 22, 2019, Claudia Frosch of Baldwin County photographed Mr. Orange foraging along the Fort Morgan Peninsula, approximately 5 miles east of Pelican Island.
As I stood quietly on Holly Beach on December 22, 2019, counting a flock of 10 sleeping Snowy Plovers among the debris of the upper beach, I pondered the idea of finding a banded Snowy Plover in the mix. The Sabine Christmas Bird Count is one of my absolute favorites each year because I elect to count at Holly Beach and have an opportunity to admire shorebirds. I never actually thought that Mr. Orange would be within this group of “snowies,” nearly in the same location as nine months prior on March 28, 2019. But there he was like clockwork, back on his wintering grounds at Holly Beach.
The Christmas Bird Count season reminds us to soak in the beauty of birdwatching and let nature tell us an everlasting story. In a changing climate, long-term datasets such as these are invaluable. I am hoping to see this handsome, well-traveled plover in the year 2020.