Audubon of the Western Everglades is collaborating with Florida Audubon to educate the public and monitor the shorebirds of Collier and Lee Counties. These Shorebird Stewardship Initiatives are grassroots, biologist-led programs designed to engage and empower local citizen scientists and beach-goers. By working alongside biologists, citizens can volunteer as Shorebird Stewards to gain knowledge about local shorebirds, help educate their fellow beach-goers, and protect nesting and roosting bird life in SW Florida.
SW Florida hosts some of the most productive nesting colonies of Least Terns and Black Skimmers in Florida. And in the winter, Collier County provides roosting habitat for the majority of the wintering Black Skimmers in the state, as well as for thousands of terns. But these shorebirds are at risk from many threats including development, human disturbance, and predators. Read more below about SW Florida’s shorebirds and how members of the public, like you, are working alongside AWE and Audubon Florida biologists to protect these vulnerable species.
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Explore Shorebird Diversity
Throughout the year hundreds of thousands of shorebirds use Florida’s beaches, whether its for breeding, roosting in the winter, stopping during migration, or all year long. Take a closer look at some of our most prevalent shorebirds below.
The Original Snow Birds
Shorebirds are highly migratory species. The birds that winter here in Florida migrate from all over the US and Canada to enjoy the Florida winter, just like many of our beach-goers. As birds migrate, they tend to use similar paths, or “flyways”, through the landscape. The Atlantic Flyway funnels millions of birds from the Appalachian and Atlantic regions down into the Caribbean and South America, and back north again. Florida’s peninsula concentrates these migrants, resulting in a huge amounts of bird life!
Most sandpipers breed in the arctic circle on the tundra, including Sanderlings and the federally endangered Red Knot. American White Pelicans breed in the northern Great Plains, and federally endangered Piping Plovers join us from the Missouri River, the Great Lakes, and up and down the Atlantic Coast. Conservation of birds like these is an inter-state and international effort. While these migrants call our shores home, we all need to be good stewards and help spread awareness of their journeys and struggles.
Both Black Skimmers and Least Terns, and their nests are protected by law. The presence of these birds does NOT prohibit beach recreation, but certain activities may be limited to outside posted areas or outside of breeding season. Beach nesting birds are easily disturbed by people, pets, and aerial vehicles.
To help protect nesting sites, biologists rope off colonies of breeding birds. This fencing keeps beach-goers and their recreation equipment away from vulnerable eggs and chicks. These areas often have Stewards to help educate curious beach-goers. If you see a Steward, stop by and they can show you what the birds are doing.
Royal Tern & Sandwich Tern
These two tern species are sometimes confused with gulls. Though closely related, terns are a sister group to the gulls and have a horizontal posture, long pointed wings, sharp bills, and black crests. The Royal Tern is the larger of the two and is easily identified by its bright orange bill. Sandwich Terns are slightly smaller and have a black bill tipped in light yellow. All terns are plunge divers. They fly well above the water’s surface to spot a school of fish, and dive into the water to catch small bait fish. Most of the Royal and Sandwich Terns on our beaches hatched on sandy barrier islands of North and South Carolina or Virginia. After the breeding season, these terns fly down the coasts to roost on our beaches for the winter. Both Royal and Sandwich Terns can live well into their 20s, and some live to be more than 30 years old! We often see the same individuals returning to the seem wintering and breeding beaches every year.
Royal Tern Sandwich Tern
Black Skimmer & Least Tern
In SW Florida we have two colonial breeding shorebird species, both of which are state Threatened in Florida. Black Skimmers and Least Terns are actually state threatened or endangered in almost every state that they breed in. Both of these birds are also colonial nesters, breeding by the hundreds to thousands of individuals on large sand beaches. We are not sure what is causing their population decline, but it could be human disturbance on either the wintering or breeding grounds, habitat loss, environmental toxins (like red tide), or fisheries collapse somewhere in their range. Researchers across their ranges are currently studying a variety of these factors.
The Black Skimmer is a large shorebird with a black back, white belly, and a long bi-colored bill. If you look closely you might notice the skimmer’s lower bill is slightly longer than its upper. It uses this bill to skim across the surface of the water as it flies. Black Skimmers eat small bait fish, and actually hunt mostly at night! Busy parents will fish most of the day and night, but in the winter Black Skimmers can often be seen sleeping on our beaches during the day. Skimmers can be found in Collier and Lee Counties year-round. Some individuals stay here their whole lives, but in the winter migrants from the northern breeding colonies in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York join our local flocks.
The Least Tern is the smallest species of tern in North America. This small bird is about the size of a songbird, but with a horizontal posture, sharp yellow bill, black crown, and a black eye-stripe. Least Terns plunge into the water to catch small bait fish, like Bay Anchovies and can often be seen presenting fish to their mate during their annual courtship. Least Terns winter in the Caribbean and Latin America. During the spring, they migrate north to Florida and other coastal states to their breeding colonies.
Shorebirds face countless threats throughout the year.Shorebirds are widely traveled species, and depend on specific breeding and wintering sites for their survival and reproductive success. From resighting banded shorebirds we know individual birds often return to the same places year-after-year, termed "migratory connectivity". Today, there are few remaining locations where shorebirds can successfully breed, winter, and stop to refuel on their migrations. And throughout their journeys, shorebirds face countless adversities and threats including development, fisheries collapses, predation by dogs and feral cats, harassment by beach-goers, and many others. Read on below, or click on a topic to learn more and see how you can help!
Who doesn’t enjoy a nice walk or run on the beach? The most common disturbance of shorebirds is people walking or running through roosting flocks on the beach. When people get too close to resting shorebirds, they become agitated or uncomfortable and are forced to flee or to “flush” (fly away in response to disturbance). Flushing forces birds to expend large amounts of energy to fly and return again to land.
Walk Around Resting Flocks
The shorebirds of SW Florida are surprisingly tolerant of human presence. But, just like people, birds need to maintain some amount of personal space. And, when roosting on our beaches, most of our shorebirds are sleeping. Black Skimmers in particular forage at night, and sleep on the beach during the day when humans are using the space. When people flush roosting flocks, they are not only cause them to expend excess energy which they should be conserving, but we are also waking them up and disturbing their sleep cycle. Repeated flushing takes a huge toll physiologically on our shorebirds. Thankfully, there is a simple solution — walk slowly and calmly around resting flocks and give them a wide berth. If they start to shuffle, fly, are make noise, you are too close, take a few steps back.
The main predators of shore- and seabirds are birds of prey, and attacks usually come from above! Because of this, bird flocks are hyper aware of everything flying around them and will flush at the slightest sign of danger. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle, like consumer drones) mimic flying predators and cause a defensive response from shorebirds, forcing the whole flock to take flight and abandon the area.
Know Your Regs: Do Not Fly Near Flocks
Not only does flushing make the birds burst into activity from rest, using precious energy, but it is also a form of harassment, or “take” of wildlife under legislature ranging from national and state law, and all the way down to local city ordinances in many places. If you are a drone operator, you are required to know and adhere to all local flying restrictions, including no-fly zones over some wildlife areas and preserves. Please steer clear of wildlife and report violators especially if state threatened species are being harassed to FWC Wildlife Alerts.
No matter how well-behaved, well-fed, or friendly your pet is, it poses a threat to wildlife. Dogs and cats are predators of shorebirds, and birds will flush at even with a distant view of a dog or cat, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to the elements where they can easily die of hypothermia or heat exposure, or leaving them vulnerable to your pet or other predator to eat. Even just 5 or 10 minutes of heat exposure during the summer can begin to cook all the eggs of a disturbed colony right on the sand, effectively destroying productivity of dozens to thousands of birds.
Keep Dogs off Beaches, Keep Cats Indoors
There are very few beaches in SW Florida that allow dogs. Dogs (and the public) are never allowed to enter posted areas of resting or breeding wildlife. And on beaches where they are allowed, dogs MUST be leashed at all times. Service animals are also not exempt from regulations regarding disturbing or harassing wildlife. Know your local regulations and which beaches allow dogs. When in doubt, leave your furry companion safe at home. If you see a dog on a county or city beach, contact local police. If you see a dog in a posted Critical Wildlife Area, call FWC Law Enforcement by dialing *FWC (*392), and take any photos or videos you can. Learn more about wildlife crime reporting by clicking here.
Feral and outdoor cats are predators of seabirds and shorebirds. Cats prey on both adults and chicks. Regardless of how much cats are fed by humans, they still kill songbirds, lizards, native rodents, snakes, Burrowing Owls, and shorebirds alike. It is estimated cats in the US alone kill 1.4 – 4 billion birds per year. By keeping cats indoors, you can help save countless lives of native wildlife, and also keep your pet from safe from cars and other predators.
Red Tide & Pollution
Our ocean systems are inherently tied to our coastal and upland systems. How we manage our lands impacts our oceans as well. One of the largest sources of pollutants is runoff. As it rains on the land, water drains off the landscape through sheet flow, streams, rivers, and human-made drainage structures. As this water flows, it carries with it fertilizers that were not absorbed, silt, trash, human waste, and other chemicals. If not properly treated, all of these pollutant travel through the waterway and to the ocean. It is well known now that plastic pollution is rampant and poses a threat to ingestion by everything from microplastics in plankton, balloons in seabirds, straws in turtles, and larger pieces too in marine mammals and sharks. What we know little about though, are the causes and effects of nutrient and chemical pollutants originating from our human-environment. Researchers are working to determine causes for harmful algal blooms, like Red Tide. It is currently thought that excess nutrients from agricultural landscapes, residential lawns, and from overwhelmed human waste treatment plants are a huge contributing factor to these large algal blooms.
Reduce Use of Fertilizers, Plastics, & Chemicals
Red Tide is caused by an increase in growth of a certain dinoflagellates, microorganisms which are naturally occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae exist in a nutrient-limited system, meaning that the algae can only survive at background concentrations unless a large amount of nutrients are put into the system. With extra nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus (the two main components of fertilizer), the algae reproduces rapidly resulting in a “bloom”.
The organism naturally produces a toxin (brevetoxin), which binds to cell membranes and interferes with nerve transmissions. In the water, this toxin can be ingested by marine life, including fish, turtles, and dolphins. The toxin can also become aerosolized due to wave action. This is what causes respiratory distress in humans on the beach during Red Tide events. During a Red Tide, people often notice foul smells, trouble breathing, dead fish, and dying birds. As sealife ingest the toxins, they build up in the body until the animal dies of paralysis, starvation, compromised respiratory system, or from secondary infection from their weakened state.
We can all help reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms. As an individual you can reduce or stop using fertilizers, or use fertilizers only in the dry season with low phosphorus and nitrogen products. If you are a member of an HOA, express your concern about fertilizer use and talk to your neighbors. We can also all talk to our representatives about stricter water laws and fertilizer regulations for corporations. We can all also make everyday choices to help reduce plastic use, such as using reusable bottles, tupperwares, metal straws, and silicone sandwich bags.
Every year, more and more of our open spaces become developed. It is estimated that 900 people move to Florida per day. With all those people comes encroachment on our few remaining wildlife areas. Beach nesting and roosting birds are especially vulnerable as they have few places to move to once areas are destroyed. Construction and maintenance of sterile sand beaches by raking is especially detrimental. Nesting shorebirds need large expanses of undisturbed sand with sparse vegetation for flightless chicks to hide in and seek shelter from the elements. Beach raking uproots plants as they grow and limit cover for chicks. You can help by patronizing beach businesses implementing conservation plans, dune conservation, and which do not rake their beaches. If you live or work on a beach which is raked, you can voice your concerns and advocate for no raking.
Other Ways to Help
Do Not Feed Wildlife
Not feeding wildlife is a simple way to protect your local beach-nesting birds, Burrowing Owls, and all the other wildlife of Marco Island. Despite the good intentions, feeding wildlife is not ethical. And on Marco Island, feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited in the city’s Code of Ordinances.
You should never attempt to feed gulls, pelicans, or other sea- and shorebirds. These birds are carnivores and should not eat bread, vegetables, or any other human food left out or given to them. Leaving these items out also attracts predators of nesting shorebirds, such as crows and raccoons.
Feeding wildlife habituates animals to unnaturally close contact with humans, and reinforces these harmful behaviors. Continued contact with humans can sometimes lead to wildlife being euthanized. Pelicans at fish cleaning stations are used to getting handouts. But once the filet is removed, the bones can slice their pouches or get lodged in their throats, both of which are fatal injuries. Simply keeping trash receptacles closed to crows and raccoons, not giving pelicans fish, and not letting gulls have access to food can make a big difference.
Donate to AWE's Stewardship Partnership
Audubon of the Western Everglades solely supports the Winter Stewardship in Collier and Lee Counties with donations, and provides support to Audubon Florida’s Summer Stewardship programs. Without the generosity of our donors, none of our work would be possible. Please consider donating to AWE here, or to Audubon Florida, and by following us on Facebook for updates like our Amazon Wish List and other fundraisers.
Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida are always looking for volunteers to help steward our beaches and assist in other activities! Whether you have a background in fundraising, management, design, biology, or just want to help birds and other wildlife, we have a way you can help.
Our volunteers help educate the public at breeding colonies and winter roost sites, outreach events, Burrowing Owl monitoring, office logistics, and many other tasks. Are you interested in volunteering? Click here to request more information about stewarding in Lee or Collier Counties, or email the AWE staff at email@example.com and they will help find a different project that fits your interests.