By Patricia Carter Deveau

“This job is more fun than anything I do outside of work hours.” Sam Murray, DNR shorebird technician

The view that broke through the trees and spread out ahead of my Volvo was blue sky, brilliant young green marsh and as we pulled into the parking lot at the boat ramp … one black cloud right over our heads. Georgia DNR wildlife biologist Fletcher Smith, standing next to his green work truck with the boat trailer, said we better stay in our cars. Just in case. Our Be a Biologist for a Day birding adventure, auctioned as part of the annual conservation fundraiser Weekend for Wildlife, was delayed just long enough to make sure there would be no lightning strikes on this humid late-afternoon trip.

Finally stepping into the boat, we snapped on life jackets and headed east on the Ogeechee River from Fort McAllister State Park to the Ogeechee Bar. The young shorebird technician Sam Murray claimed the bar was “a million times better than Egg Island or Gould’s Inlet,” the only other birding places I could name-drop. We were to learn that Sam was right by about a couple thousand or so winged tourists.

Arriving at the sandbar, our job was threefold: fence off an area to protect nesting birds from Memorial Day beachgoers, spot red knots feeding on horseshoe crab eggs and, if lucky, band the American oystercatcher chick Fletcher had spotted on a previous trip. First we unloaded the equipment – lots of equipment – two tripods, one spotting scope, one camera with a very long lens, 20 36-inch tall green metal posts, two rolls of yellow nylon rope, two heavy, well-worn  backpacks filled with banding tools, notebooks, and a couple cans of sparkling water.

“Do you know how to shuffle?” Fletcher asked. “Well, uh, yes, I think so?” I answered.

“Good because when the tide comes up,” he replied, “we may have to wade out and the sting rays like this bay, too.”

“Oh … kay …”

This time of year, May 16, the horseshoe crabs move into the quiet water on the back of sandbars to lay their eggs. And when they do, thousands of migrating red knots swoop down to gobble up the tiny, fat-rich eggs that provide the fuel the knots need to complete their 9,000-mile trip from South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Red knots have a tight two- to three-week time frame for this critical travel stop on the Georgia coast. Fletcher said he had not seen a lot of horseshoe crabs mating yet. On the sandbar I recognized skimmers (bright orange beak and streamlined triangle-like look when resting), terns (quick, white and gray and not happy when we seemed to near their nests) and brown pelicans (huge in comparison). I had never seen a red knot before – described by my late-night Google search and quick look at a shorebirds guide as “ruddy breast, robin-like with short beaks about the same size as their head.” Soon, thanks to Fletcher, I focused my Mother’s Day gift binoculars on a group of red knots gathered near the waterline in a circle where they eagerly snacked on the eggs.

“Why did we come at high tide?” I asked, thinking we would be better off with more sand to stand on than rising on our toes as the tide rose. “Because,” Fletcher graciously explained, “as the tide comes in, the birds move to higher ground on the remaining sand and it is easier to find and view them in these clustered groups.” He set up his spotting scope and camera on the tripods and we quickly saw the wisdom of this (did I say Fletcher has been doing this for 20-plus years?).

Per his instructions, we were looking for colored flags, which identify the birds and contribute to biologists’ knowledge of their migratory flights. Roughly 2-4 percent of red knots that visit Georgia’s coast have been banded (a flag is a leg band with a tab that sticks out). If you are lucky, you might be able to spot two or four flagged birds in a group of 100.

This day, Fletcher spotted an orange flag (Argentina), a red flag (Chile), a few green flags (Georgia) and one blue flag (Brazil). With his scope and trained eyes, he read the tiny letters and numbers on the flags and jotted them in his notebook. He also emailed a colleague in Argentina to let her know he had seen “her bird,” the thousands-mile traveler with the orange flag. “We’ve seen this orange one now two to three years in a row.” Red knots are banded with a flag above their ankle joint, high on the leg and, in our observation, just below their bum.

DNR biologist Fletcher Smith, technician Sam Murray and Patricia Daveau processing an American oystercatcher chick. (Patricia Daveau)

DNR biologist Fletcher Smith, technician Sam Murray and Patricia Daveau process an American oystercatcher chick. (Special to DNR)

In early 2020, the Georgia coast was recognized as part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, or WHSRN, a partnership-driven conservation initiative for protecting critical shorebird habitats throughout the Americas. Georgia is a key partner in the global shorebird conservation family, along with organizations such as Manomet, The Nature Conservancy and others.

Fletcher said Ogeechee Bar is among several Georgia beaches used as important or critical stopover sites by migrating red knots. Others include Gould’s Inlet, the south end of Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island. But Ogeechee Bar is the richest and safest. “Because it is basically an offshore sandbar, few mammalian predators can reach the birds here.” Fletcher pointed out a few shallow “bowls” in the sand where birds were testing spots to build their nests. Unfortunately, he said, sometimes those birds —  least terns, American oystercatchers and black skimmers – choose their sites poorly and the nests are victims of “overwash,” when high tides inundate nests. “Often the birds pick the worst spots to build their nests, but they are forced into these decisions by lack of suitable predator-free nesting locations on the Georgia coast.”

Tides have ranged unusually high this year. Fletcher was concerned that some of these early nests would be destroyed by overwash. It was easy for our untrained eyes to see where high-tide riverlets cut across the sandbar. On our way to the end of the bar, we saw one least tern nest with two eggs; on our return after the tide peaked, the nest had been washed out. “Nothing to do but hope the next pair sets down their nest on higher ground,” Fletcher observed.

Red knots migrate through Georgia. They nest in the Arctic, but scientists are not sure specifically where, so that is why this year DNR requested some very small satellite units to track up to 10 birds. Spotting the banded flags on birds helps pinpoint the routes of and important stopover sites for marked birds, but only if someone is in the right place to see and record them. Satellite trackers mark the flight paths and stopover locations without human assistance.

As the tide rose this evening, the birds moved more tightly into larger groups on higher sand. Some of the knots – plump and well fed – sat and huddled together. Fletcher told us to listen. He explained that the chirping we heard is a sign that some of the knots have eaten their fill and are rallying other knots to resume the flock’s travels. Sure enough, within minutes we see a group rise in the air, rise a bit more and then head north. Next stop: the Arctic or Delaware Bay. A little later a second chirping group rises and departs. Wow. We are observing an ancient call of nature. And the setting sun perfectly lights the scene.

Soon, the tide peaks and starts going down. Fletcher’s camera memory card has also run out – an indicator that our outing has been terrific for this experienced biologist, too. We shuffle and splash back towards the boat, skirting the nesting area Sam roped-off earlier.

Sam goes ahead of us and catches the oyster chick. He gently holds the fluffy 12-inch bird close to his chest. The chick is remarkably patient as Fletcher applies a silver band and two red ones. I jot down the band number and the measurements for weight, length, feathers, etc., in a well-used field notebook. We look over our shoulder to see the chick’s mama and dad watching from a distance. Not agitated but definitely not taking their eyes off junior. I get to hold the chick briefly, then release it to run off along the sandbar. Mom and dad fly in to meet junior.

Patricia Devaeu holding a newly banded red knot chick. (Patricia Devaeu)

Patricia Deveau holds the newly banded oystercatcher chick. (Special to DNR)

The wind is really picking up and the sun is going down. Fletcher predicts a wet bumpy ride back to the dock. But, hold on, horseshoe crabs are coming up to the sandbar and spawning, and, oh boy, the red knots are gathering and feasting on eggs. More crabs mate. More knots fly in to eat. We pull out our iPhones and video and snap photos of this ancient, annual ritual. The light is low and the photos are not National Geographic quality, but they’re documentary proof of a fabulous day. “Best day ever,” say the biologist and the tech as we turn into the setting sun and skim along the calmer lee of the island. We agree.

Be a Biologist for a Day is one of several silent auction outings donated by DNR wildlife biologists and TERN for Weekend for Wildlife, held each winter on Sea Island. Bidders can attend the weekend or for a small fee register to bid online on items. All TERN proceeds support research and education for DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section, which is charged with conserving the state’s nongame wildlife, rare plants and natural habitats. For more info on DNR’s work to research, restore and protect endangered birds, bats, turtles, wildflowers, whales, snakes, mussels and others, visit the Wildlife Resources Division’s Facebook page or website and sign up for the free Georgia Wild enewsletter. Learn more about Weekend for Wildlife (the 2024 event is set for Feb. 2-3) at

Patricia Carter Deveau is a board member of TERN, friends group of DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section and a new member of Stewards of the Georgia Coast

Top: A red knot flock (Fletcher Smith/DNR)