Beach Nesting Birds

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A Personal Perspective

While we grapple with the changes in our lives due to COVID-19, the beach nesting birds are staying steadfast on their yearly quest to reproduce. During Florida’s beach nesting bird season, these birds must in short time acquire a mate, determine a nest site, incubate the eggs during the heat and storms of the summer, and look after their offspring until they are ready to fledge. At the south end of Fort Myers Beach this wonder of nature will occur for four species of beach nesting birds. They are the snowy plover, Wilson plover, least tern and black skimmer.

My thoughts go to the behaviors I witnessed watching the beach nesting birds, when I worked in 2013 and 2014 as the FWC Biotechnician for the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) and every year thereafter. As I reflect on these behaviors, there are some valuable life skills, we can all take note of, especially now.

Snowy Plover

Nesting-Birds-Fort-Myers-Beach-Male-snowy-plover-with-chick
Male snowy plover tending to chick.

On Fort Myers Beach the snowy plovers prefer nesting on the big open beach south of the CWA. The snowy plover pair I remember best were very devoted to each other. The female had an injured, bent leg that made it easy for me to identify the pair and observe their behaviors. The pair had difficulty mating due to the injured leg, but hormones and loyalty won out and the pair successfully mated. They continued to stay together and while there were multiple times the female could not keep up with the male, his pace would slow down until she met up with him. Snowy plovers make multiple scrapes in the sand to determine the best site for their nest. For this pair it was no different, but this year, there were many spring rains that washed their scrapes away multiple times; they remained devoted to each other and determined to make a scrape that would withstand the rains. Eventually, success was at hand and three eggs were laid in a scrape and the pair stayed dedicated to each other, taking turns incubating the eggs until hatching.

Rearing the snowy plover chicks presented a new challenge. When emerging from the nest, these precocial chicks are moving about within the hour to find morsels of crustaceans and insects in the sand to eat. I watched as the parents did their best to position themselves on either side of their chicks as they ran about with great bursts of energy in all directions. And, when a chick needed to rest or seek shelter, one of the parents was readily available to provide shade underneath their wings while the other parent continued to keep watch over the still-active chicks. The devotion I observed between this pair stays with me to this day. Because snowy plovers are a threatened species, every successful rearing of chicks by the parents is cause for celebration.

Wilson Plover

Wilson plover in poor condition.

Wilson plovers prefer nesting amongst the dune vegetation in the CWA. It is why in the CWA, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) posts these sites with signage that read, “Do Not Enter.” It is very important to stay out of the posted areas and leave the nesting birds undisturbed.

Wilson plover exhibiting a ‘broken wing’ display. Photo by Jan Bachrach.

Typically, Wilson plovers, like other beach nesting birds, have a devoted mate to increase the survival of their young. There was, however, the case where it appeared that a Wilson plover female was responsible for incubating the eggs on her own. This occurred later in the nesting season and may have been a second nesting. I only observed the female at the nest and do not know if her mate was anywhere in the vicinity, but I watched her condition decline day after day. I wasn’t sure she would survive.  It came as a relief to me, the day the eggs hatched, and the chicks emerged from the nest. I saw her walking the beach with her chicks in tow looking far better than the days before. For any single parent, this female Wilson plover can remind us not to quit doing what you’ve been tasked to do even when the days and nights are hard. She stayed the course as we all must do and stayed at the nest.

Least Tern

Least Tern.

While the Wilson and snowy plovers are known as solitary nesters, least terns are colony nesters. A population of least terns arrive in early April from their southern wintering grounds to Fort Myers Beach in full force, eager to mate and raise their chicks. In prior years, up to 400 pairs of least terns, a threatened species, have nested right here on our beaches. How exciting that Fort Myers Beach hosts a least tern colony nest site year after year! Least terns are dedicated not only to their own nest and chicks, but to the entire colony. During the nesting season, any intruders into their nursery site, are met with a coordinated onslaught of the terns doing their best to protect the colonies future generation.

Yes, for the least terns, diminutive in size, people pose a huge threat to them. While they instinctively dive bomb beachgoers to drive them away from the colony, in my experience, they do not hit you, as this would potentially cause injury to themselves. I did, however, always wear a hat to protect myself from any artillery (bird poop) directed my way. I didn’t mind this defensive action when viewed from the perspective of the birds protecting each other. Their actions are not that different from our own in how we are concerned for others beyond our immediate family and strive to protect those who are at risk.

Black Skimmer

Black skimmer pair with chick and egg.

Black skimmers are another species of colony nesters that grace us with their presence on Fort Myers Beach. They nest on the beach where the least terns have nested, likely due to the added protection the terns provide. Their speckled eggs are about the size of a small chicken egg with a clutch size of 1 – 5 eggs. Like the least terns, the black skimmer chicks are dependent upon their parents for food for 3- 4 weeks after hatching. Both the least terns and black skimmers will bring their offspring to the shore as they learn to survive on their own. During this time, beachgoers are asked to keep an eye out for the fledglings and give them a wide berth as they learn to navigate the beach.

Beach nesting birds are dedicated parents whose behaviors demonstrate intelligence, determination, cooperation, dedication and resiliency.

To distract would-be predators, these birds are known to do a broken wing display potentially sacrificing themselves for the sake of their offspring. Storm surges can flood the beach wiping out nests, but often chicks are taken to higher ground and after the storm subsides, renesting frequently occurs.

While beach nesting birds are both determined nesters and resilient, shorebird populations have dramatically declined in the past decades due to the development of what had been historic nesting beach sites, climate change, predation and human disturbance. For these reasons, Florida’s remaining nest sites are posted and protected.  Many thanks to the residents of Castle Beach, Carlos Point and private property owners at the south end of Fort Myers Beach who cooperate with the FWC to post and protect the nesting birds on their beach property and thus, play a vital role in ensuring the next generation of these species.

Photographing Birds

Photographers should not disturb nesting shorebirds. While the photos appear to be close-up photos, they were taken from a long distance with a zoom lens. Not disturbing the birds is far more important than any photo. Take a few photos and move on. No one, no matter how quiet they may be, should position themselves near a nesting area for an extended period of time. A good pair of binoculars is the best way to observe birds.

For detailed information on the life history of birds, see www.allaboutbirds.org.

FWC Nesting Shorebird brochure: bit.ly/FWCShorebirds

 

by Penny Jarrett 
Photos by Penny Jarrett, except as indicated.