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Do not disturb: Nesting shorebirds dodge Mother Nature, mankind

By Staff | Jun 7, 2017

Fort Myers Beach is home to one of the two largest shorebird nesting colonies in the entire state of Florida.

Snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers, least terns and black skimmers are all threatened in Florida, but choose the island’s Critical Wildlife Area, Little Estero Island and Carlos Point Beach as their nursery.

But, between the unpredictability of nature and the peril of human interference, the two plover species and the least terns are having a rough nesting season.

Brad Cornell of Audubon Florida is concerned these birds could give up on Fort Myers Beach if steps are not taken to preserve their nesting grounds.

Two weeks ago, a storm front moved in bringing winds up to 20 and 30 mph. The storm coincided with a natural phenomenon called “king tide,” during which the alignment of the moon creates higher-than-usual tides. These two incidents flooded out many least tern nests in the CWA area and Carlos Point Beach.

The CWA is located at the southern end of Estero Island, running along the beach from roughly south of the Wyndham Garden Resort to about the 8200 block of Estero Boulevard. Carlos Point Beach is the wide beach adjacent to the CWA at the southern tip of the island.

“When the king tides happened the birds were just starting to hatch,” Cornell said. “We’re not sure how many were lost.”

The entire colony of least terns was not devastated – many nests were safe or saved. But disaster struck again for the birds on Memorial Day. Someone drove a truck through private property onto the beach. The driver not only trespassed, but unauthorized driving is illegal on Fort Myers Beach.

“They drove right through the little eggs and chicks,” Cornell said.

Kat Harris, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conserva-tion Commission regional shorebird biologist, and Nancy Douglass, FWC regional species biologist, said the nesting sites were not a total loss after both problems, with one snowy plover nest, 10 least tern nests and one tern chick lost during the flooding. The FWC found no evidence that the truck destroyed any nests or chicks.

Least terns will try three to four times a season to produce a successful nest, Harris said. Snowy plover females will hatch chicks and then renest with a different male during the nesting season.

“The birds that lost their nest are starting to renest,” Harris said. “Hopefully we will have new nests in a few weeks.”

While the damage may not seem drastic, Douglass said it was still scary to hear about the truck rolling through the nesting area.

“The birds are difficult to see to the untrained eye,” she said. “We try to demarcate the nests so people don’t accidentally disturb the nests, but once the chicks get up and run around, it’s hard to keep track of them. They come to harm quite easily.”

The Audubon has a volunteer posted near the nesting sites, called an anchor steward, to watch over the eggs and chicks and educate the public who may stroll by or shore up by boat. Tiffany Briggs, the anchor steward on duty on Memorial Day, was able to call the FWC’s law enforcement division on the truck driver. Cornell said it’s not the first time something like that happened – the FWC officers had to stop several other vehicles from doing the same thing that day.

“This area is private property,” Douglass said.

She said the owners of the beach have always been helpful in watching over the birds and nests.

But disturbing endangered birds can come with serious legal consequences. With the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law, disturbing or harming a bird is a second degree misdemeanor with a $500 fine or jail time, Douglass said. For the state-threatened species, which include most of the nesters at Carlos Point, killing one is a felony.

“These birds aren’t nesting on every beach,” Cornell said. “We have to share the beach with the birds.”

These four bird species use certain beaches to nest: they need wide-open beaches without too many threats. Least terns, snowy plovers and black skimmers lay their eggs right on the sand; the eggs sit there for a few weeks incubating before they hatch. Then it’s another several weeks before the chicks fledge – or are ready to feed themselves and fly. That’s almost two months that least terns need to keep their chicks safe. Wilson’s plovers lay their eggs in the dunes and bushes, but they too need a safe place very near the water. Black skimmers nest later on in the summer. This species has not yet begun to lay, but Harris predicts the eggs will begin appearing the next week or two.

“Everybody’s watching these birds all over the state,” Cornell said. “Everybody’s trying to get them to have good nesting, and there aren’t many places with wide open beaches that aren’t heavily trafficked.”

Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island are the two biggest nesting sites in the state. If a nesting site has too many disturbances, be it a manmade problem or a natural one, these colonial nesters will stop returning to that site. Cornell gave an example: Keywadin Island in Collier County should be a prime location for these shorebirds to roost and raise chicks as it has a wide, open beach. But it’s become a party location – Cornell said he saw 500 boats there once, and many people also bring their dogs.

“The birds have not nested there in years,” he said. “They’ve given up on that beach.”

The Audubon and FWC are trying to educate the public about the wellbeing of these endangered birds, including posting around nesting sites to keep people from walking through them. People can do other things to help them, too, such as picking up trash to deter gulls and crows from gathering, because gulls will also eat chicks and eggs. Last year, laughing gulls ruined the colony on Fort Myers Beach and two dozen crows ate 5,000 eggs on Marco Island, Cornell said.

“We don’t want to let that happen again,” Cornell said. “Crows and gulls are here because we’re here. Food and trash brings predators.”

Douglass and Harris said the key to better treatment is often simple education. They commended the Audubon Society on their volunteer steward program, saying that one-on-one explanation to residents and visitors alike really helps make people understand more about the birds living in Florida.

“Ninety-nine percent of the folks we encounter do care, they just aren’t fully aware,” Douglass said. “Once you let them know they’re generally really cooperative. For the 1 percent who don’t care, that’s what law enforcement is for.”

But nesting season isn’t over, and neither are the problems for the birds.

Now that season has ended and the beaches are less populated, dogs on the beach become a bigger problem, said Bill Veach, chairman of the Town of Fort Myers Beach Marine Resources Task Force.

While the majority of these birds are nesting in the CWA and Carlos Point, they do hang out all over the island. Once people aren’t crowding the beach, people have a tendency to let their dogs off-leash, Veach said.

Dogs are allowed on leash on Fort Myers Beach, except for the portions owned by the county.

“Once the beach empties out, people think it’s okay to let their dogs off-leash because there are no people to disturb,” Veach said.

He tries to let beach-goers know about the shorebirds and other wildlife that dogs threaten when he sees someone walking their dog or letting their dog wander freely.

“There are more than people on the beach,” he said.

Dogs can scare birds into flight or trample and eat eggs and chicks. Cornell said if people must bring their four-legged friends they should keep them on leash to ensure they don’t hard the birds.

Birds have one more holiday to survive.

“We made it through Memorial Day weekend,” Douglass said. “There are two manmade hurdles during nesting season, Memorial Day and Fourth of July.”

She cautions visitors and residents from letting off fireworks on the beach, especially near the posted nesting sites, as the chaos of the fireworks will often cause adults to abandon their nests. When there are lots of people gathering on the beach, the chicks can often get crushed, too. Snowy plover chicks can run, but their instinct when in danger is to hunker down and be still. They blend in with the sand, so they are easily stepped on.

“If they get consistent harassment and aren’t able to protect eggs, they will abandon an area,” Douglass said. “That’s why we’re working so hard with the landowners and visitors to make everybody aware so the birds don’t leave.”