How does someone from Murray, Nebraska, become a marine biologist and work their way to the Mobile area? Meet Cortney Weatherby. It turns out Northwest Missouri State University has a Marine Biology department that partners with the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg to offer students first-hand access to study on the Gulf Coast. Cortney spent her college summers studying and earning her degree in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
She is now the Coastal Outreach Manager for Alabama Audubon, and a big event is about to take place. Every year about this time, millions of migratory birds take off from south of the Gulf of Mexico and begin the long, treacherous flight north, seeking out their nesting grounds.
This journey leaves the birds exhausted, and one of their first opportunities to land and refuel is at Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan. This is where Alabama Audubon and its partners step in. This team hosts a yearly coastal bird banding event in the spring, drawing about as many people as it does birds.
“While we do a lot to promote this event, it is really a big group effort by multiple entities, including the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Mississippi State University, USFWS, and Fort Morgan State Historic Site,” says Cortney. Here on the coast, Alabama Audubon’s work also provides critical protection and monitoring for our state’s sensitive beach-nesting bird populations.
While in college, Cortney became very familiar with the Scenic 98 Coastal area. After graduation, she did stints in the Florida Keys, Charleston, South Carolina, and Homer, Alaska, including some time at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. She accepted a job with Alabama Audubon and moved to Alabama’s Eastern Shore in February 2022.
She says Chincoteague Island reminds her a lot of Dauphin Island. Her main role in each of these career stops has been community outreach and education, hosting and speaking to various groups, especially school children, about coastal ecosystems. She also works with summer camps for kids, college programs, and adult programs known as “Road Scholars.”
She taught the Spark Program at Chincoteague Bay Field Station, where local families would come spend more time outdoors and experience the wildlife.“We’d do things like pull a seine net and put something we caught in people’s hands. That’s the stuff that sticks with them.” She says she has learned a lot about different ecosystems around the United States and uses these experiences to teach others.
“I cut my teeth in Chincoteague learning how to bring people together around the outdoors. I love to explain what I get to do. I have the most fun teaching people about my passion; coastal ecosystems and the wildlife that depends on those habitats.”
The morning we met, Cortney had already taken a group bird-watching from Five Rivers Delta Center and had another group scheduled that afternoon. She took her time educating me about Alabama Audubon, and I can tell you first-hand Cortney is very good at her job. I was fascinated and learned so much.
Alabama Audubon was established in 1946, is a recognized Audubon Society chapter, and is headquartered in Birmingham. They opened an office in Daphne in 2017. The organization is about bird conservation and education. “Here, we are focused on beach-nesting birds. As the name suggests, these birds lay their eggs directly on the sand.”
The Daphne office consists of Cortney, two coastal biologists, and an intern. Shorebirds nest on Alabama beaches between May and August. The biologists monitor to find where the shorebirds are located and then track down the nests. “These are itty bitty eggs lying on the beach. They are camouflaged and hard to find,” she says.
Once the nest is found, the biologists track its progress. “Hopefully, the eggs are okay and not victims of coyotes, foxes, Ghost crabs, the weather, or beachgoers. If a nest does fail, we read the scene to determine what happened.”
If the eggs make it to hatch, the biologists continue to monitor them until the birds are “fledglings,” meaning they can fly. “It takes 22 to 28 days before the eggs hatch and around another 25 days before they can fly.“ All this takes place throughout the summer. “The baby birds have to survive the gauntlet before they can really protect themselves with flight,” says Cortney.
A large portion of Cortney’s time during the nesting season is spent at the beach. Alabama Audubon covers all of Alabama’s coastline. As people come to the beach, she will set up a tent, place signs, and provide brochures explaining why they are there and why protecting the sensitive nesting areas is important. “Our job is bird monitoring and building bird stewardship.”
There are thirteen species of beach-nesting birds that lay eggs along Alabama’s beaches in the summer from Dauphin Island, Ft. Morgan, to Perdido Key. Some of these species nest by themselves, and some of them nest in large colonies. “The islands and more isolated beaches are the most productive,” says Cortney. “Not as many people and predators can get to them.”
Back to the exhausted birds recouping on Alabama’s coast after their flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama Audubon spends five days each spring hosting Coastal Bird Banding. This year’s event will be held at the Ft. Morgan Historic Site from April 18 through April 22, the expected arrival time of migratory songbirds visiting Alabama, kind of like their Spring Break.
Alabama Audubon and its partners for the event set up fine mist nets into which the returning birds fly and are captured, and a small metal band with a unique number/letter combination is placed around the bird’s leg. The whole process takes maybe 15 minutes at most and is performed by 4 or 5 experienced bird banders. The birds are immediately released to minimize stress.
People are welcome to come and watch and see the birds up close. “It is so, so cool,” says Cortney. “This is an observation and awareness event. This banding site is one of the very few that is open to the public.” To get the most out of this experience, Cortney recommends “ask and be curious.” They do welcome volunteers to serve as docents to encourage visitors to learn but not interfere.
Martha and Bob Sargent are credited with starting the program at Ft. Morgan in 1989 and running the event through 2014. In 2017, Alabama Audubon and partners picked up where they left off. Last year was the first year back after Covid and Cortney’s first year to participate. “We are promoting the event this year and inviting people to come as we did before Covid,” she says.
“Our hope is that we will have good birds and good conversations. It’s an opportunity to create new bird advocates. ” Some people have attended the Coastal Bird Banding event ever since Bob and Martha started thirty-plus years ago. Other attendees are just passing through and are curious to see what it's all about.
She goes on to say, “There are so many ways to enjoy and protect birds. You can be a hardcore bird watcher or a backyard birder; both are great.” Alabama Audubon also promotes natural habitats and encourages people to “plant native.” Native plants attract the insects that attract the birds.
At a recent event where Cortney was the speaker, one woman said, “I’ve been living here eighty years and never knew that birds nested on our beaches. “That’s the kind of thing that drives me,” says Cortney. “I want everyone to know about these birds and why they are worth protecting. I love what I do!”
The Alabama Audubon Coastal Bird Stewardship Program is funded with Deepwater Horizon natural resource damage settlement funds provided by the Alabama Trustee Implementation Group. This project is further supported by the National Audubon Society through funding from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.