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Shorebirds set for nesting season on the islands

By Staff | Apr 15, 2020

In recent weeks, the three species of shorebirds that nest on Sanibel and Capitva – snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns – have been pairing off with mates, digging their nests and settling in.

In 2002, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation initiated a project aimed at monitoring and protecting snowy plovers as Sanibel is home to about 20 percent of Southwest Florida’s nesting population. SCCF Shorebird Biologist Audrey Albrecht explained that about 50 nesting pairs have historically been documented for the region, with approximately 10 of those recorded on-island.

Wilson’s plovers and least terns are also monitored and protected as part of the project.

“Every year we have those three nesting,” she said, noting that season starts in mid-February in areas like the Panhandle. “In Southwest Florida, we don’t really see nesting until late March or April.”

Snowy plovers, for the most part, can be found on the islands year-round.

“They are paired up and have established territories. The males have been digging nests and getting into fights,” Albrecht said last week, explaining that a nest is a shallow depression in the sand.

The male snowy plover will dig multiple nests for the pair to pick from. Generally, a female snowy plover will lay three eggs, followed by weeks of incubating them by taking turns with her mate.

She noted that it typically takes about four or five weeks for nests to hatch.

“But here on Sanibel, it does tend to take a little longer – more like six weeks,” Albrecht said, explaining that it is due to the presence of people and because the chicks are up, running and eating on their own quickly. “The male actually will raise the chicks until they fledge or learn how to fly.”

Most of the snowy plovers nest on Sanibel.

“We haven’t seen any nesting on Captiva in the last several years,” she said. “The majority of the birds are on the eastern most mile of the island, between the (Sanibel) Lighthouse and Mile Marker 1.”

“They are a state-designated threatened species,” Albrecht noted.

Asked about nesting numbers in recent years, she explained that the snowy plovers have had a rough go. Before last year, only one chick fledged for each of the prior two years – one died of red tide.

“But 2019 was actually pretty good,” Albrecht said. “We managed to fledge four chicks.”

While not a threatened species, the Wilson’s plover is a focal species for the state. Its mating and nesting process nearly mirrors that of the snowy plover – even down to laying three eggs.

“But those are a little more secretive,” she said of where the birds chose to nest.

The Wilson’s plovers settle in on the west end, with again none documented on Captiva in years.

One interesting fact about plovers: The females can nest more than once during the season.

“They normally try to find a mate and nest again,” Albrecht said of what happens after the eggs hatch, which is why the male plovers are raising the chicks from the time that they hatch until they fledge.

While a threatened species like the snowy plover, least terns have their own way of nesting.

“They are a colonial nesting seabird,” she said, explaining that it means the birds nest together rather than setting up territories. “They nest in colonies, so we normally see them at Bowman’s Beach.”

She noted that the terns should be arriving soon.

“The least terns are arriving back from their wintering grounds in southern and central America,” Albrecht said, adding that they typically lay two to three eggs in a similar kind of sand nest.

“They (the chicks) actually rely on their mom and dad to bring them food, which is usually bait fish,” she said. “They incubate for less time and fledge faster, so their whole nesting season is faster.”

Albrecht reported that while the least terns have historically nested at Bowman’s, last year’s nesting failed and the birds relocated to North Captiva. The SCCF is working on monitoring them up there.

When she joined the SCCF team in 2016, Albrecht expanded the shorebird project from collecting information during just the nesting season, to having a year-round focus with monthly surveys.

“To kind of establish a baseline data set for what our shorebird populations look like,” she said.

The shorebird team is usually made up of Albrecht, an intern and about 10 volunteers. In nesting season, they monitor the beaches daily, marking nests and roping them off to protect them. The team monitors the nests until they hatch, and then moves on to monitoring the chicks until they can fly.

“It can be challenging because they move all over the place,” she said of the plover chicks.

In light of COVID-19, however, the team has had to make some changes this year.

“As of right now, health and safety are our top priorities,” Albrecht said. “Our volunteers are not working right now on this project until at least the end of April. I also won’t have an intern.”

The SCCF’s shorebird project also has a banding component to it.

“We band individual birds so we can keep track of them,” she said. “Through our banding program, we’re learning a little more about how they travel around – so they do move around a bit.”

Its oldest known plover was banded as an adult in 2009.

“That means she’s at least 12 years old,” Albrecht said. “She fledged two chicks last year over by the (Sanibel) Lighthouse, and she is back this year with a mate getting ready to nest again.”

With Sanibel’s beaches still open for recreational use during the current pandemic, the SCCF offered the following tips and suggestions for the public to help ensure the best possible nesting season:

* Honor the leash law. Plovers view dogs as predators. An unleashed dog can destroy nests and kill hatchlings.

* Respect signed nesting areas. Plover nests are really difficult to see. The posted areas prevent beach-goers from accidentally trampling the eggs in a nest.

* Be a respectful photographer.

“Watch your step. The birds are very small and camouflaged, and the nests are as well,” Albrecht added, encouraging people to stay closer to the shoreline as they nest higher up by the dunes.

Also, do not leave trash behind and do not feed wildlife.

“Feeding birds and crows attracts predators to nesting areas,” she said.

Albrecht explained that if a person is too close to a nest or chicks, the parents will do what is called a “broken wing” display. The adult will peep and run around, and it will look like its wing is broken.

“Stop and look around you,” she advised.

For additional information, visit www.sccf.org/projects/shorebirds.

If you suspect you found an unmarked nest, contact the SCCF at shorebirds@sccf.org.

To report a violation, call the FWC wildlife alert hotline number at 888-404-FWCC (404-3922).

The SCCF also offers people the opportunity to “adopt” a snowy plover. Donors receive a certificate and all of the proceeds go to the shorebird program and needed supplies. Visit online for details.