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Shorebird nesting season off to a late start

By Staff | Jun 7, 2017

A freshly hatched wilson’s plover chick with its father, taken the fourth week of May prior to the storm. One chick from this brood survived the storm and is now a week old. AUDREY ALBRECHT

Although the shorebird nesting season – snowy plover, Wilson’s plover and killdeer – is off to a late start, each have had hatchlings and currently have active nests.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Shorebird Program Coordinator and Biologist Audrey Albrecht said the shorebird nesting season appears to coincide with when the busy beach crowd starts to dwindle. She said with the heavy crowd leaving after Easter, the shorebirds were able to settle down and nest right away.

This year the snowy plovers began their nesting season on April 19, which was later than last year, a little more than two weeks later.

So far this nesting season, there are a total of 11 snowy plover nests on the island. Three nests were depredated by crows and one was abandoned by the female after the male was brought to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife. The male did not make it after being found lethargic and covered in fire ants.

Although one nest hatched before a storm came ashore the fourth week of May, two were washed over after strong winds and high tides affected the island.

A female snowy plover shading her eggs on a very hot day last month. When the temperatures are extremely hot, the snowy plovers will stand over the nest to provide shade, rather than incubating. AUDREY ALBRECHT

“We had really strong south winds pushing all of that water on land. It goes right up and washes over where the birds are nesting,” Albrecht said.

She said the snowy plovers prefer to nest in an open sandy area where they are well camouflaged and have a full view around their nest to see predators coming. For example on Bowman’s Beach, the snowy’s like to nest in the middle of the open beach.

“It’s still going to be closer to the dunes, but more out in the open,” Albrecht said.

As of last Wednesday, there were four active nests being incubated.

“We have around 10 nesting pairs and expect some to re-nest very soon,” she said.

The snowy plovers begin pairing up by Feb. 15, followed by establishing their territories. She said they roost in larger groups, but begin splitting up as nesting season progresses. After they find their territory they began forming scrapes, shallow depressions in the sand, where they will later choose to lay their eggs.

“Once we locate the actual nest we rope that off,” Albrecht said.

The reason for the large roped off area, she explained, is because they want to prevent the snowy plover from feeling threatened and flushed off their nest. Albrecht said if the snowy is scared off of her nest and the eggs are left exposed to heat, or predators, it becomes very vulnerable.

The snowy’s will lay three eggs, one every other, to third day. Once the full clutch is laid, they begin incubating for 28 days. All of the chicks will hatch at the same time.

The island has three nesting pairs of wilson’s plover. So far this year, there are five nests. Two nests are being actively incubated as of last Wednesday. One nest hatched before the storm, with that chick being a week old as of last Wednesday. One of the nests was depredated by crows.

The Wilson’s plover will lay a clutch of three eggs. Albrecht said the wilson plovers are utilizing the same area they did last year.

Although there are three nesting pairs of killdeer on the beach, she said, they can be found nesting all over the island in various places. Albrecht said they favor areas with gravel, or sand patches located near the water, such as the Sanctuary Golf course.

This year two nests have been depredated by crows, one nest has hatched and one nest is being actively incubated.

The killdeer will lay a clutch of three to four eggs.

Once the nests are found and roped off, Albrecht said they try and check them every couple of days from the outside of the enclosure with either binoculars, or a camera. She said they frequent the nests more often when its close to hatching, so they can confirm if there were any chicks out of that nest.

The west end of the island, from Blind Pass to Bowman’s Beach, is monitored daily because of the beach nourishment that is taking place. So far, Albrecht said the birds are nesting high enough on the beach where they are not affected by the construction. Some of the nests will start hatching once the construction is expected to be completed.

SCCF keeps track of the nesting shorebirds until they are fledged.

Although coyotes can propose a threat to the shorebirds, especially on the west end of the island, they do not tend to prey on solitary nesting plovers, but rather least tern colonies where there are many nests in close proximity.

“We had around 30 terns here earlier in season, but they opted not to nest here this year. In 2016 they suffered a major depredation event by a canine predator, and remaining nests were washed over in Tropical Storm Colin. They may have opted to nest on Fort Myers Beach where there is a larger colony,” Albrecht said, adding that last year they had about 23 nesting pairs.

To ensure the shorebirds have a successful nesting season there are simple things beach goers can do to help protect them.

Albrecht encourages people to respect the shorebirds nesting enclosures because it may look like there are no birds within due to being incredibly well camouflaged. All pets should be kept on a leash because plovers perceive dogs as a threat and will leave eggs exposed to heat and other predators, she said.

All trash should be picked up and birds should not be fed.

“Trash and food on the beach attract predators such as gulls, crows and raccoons,” Albrecht said.

All holes should also be filled in before leaving the beach because flightless chicks and sea turtle hatchlings can fall in and become trapped.

For those who would like to adopt a shorebird can do so by visiting donorbox.org/sccf-adopt-a-shorebird. The donation will go directly to supplies such as twine, wooden posts, and signs to protect the nesting areas.

To become a volunteer with the SCCF shorebird program, email shorebirds@sccf.org.