Fort Myers Beach is in the heart of shorebird nesting season, from February 15 through September 1. “Watch underfoot,” cautions Rae Blake, the Stormwater & Environmental Technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. “Adults and their babies are running around, and they are all so tiny, even the parents. Snowy plovers and Wilson’s plovers are back, and they have baby little buggers that are little balls of fluff! Adults are only about 3 inches big, so that gives you an idea how little are the babies. They are really small and they blend into the sand so well, to hide from predators, but unfortunately it makes it hard for people to see them, so we must really keep an eye out for them.”
They nest right on the beach, unlike herons and many other birds that nest in trees. “Nesting shorebird eggs are speckled,” advises Rae, “to help them stay camouflaged on the beach, and that makes it all the more important to watch under your feet. This is especially true for Snowy plovers and Least Terns that carry the Threatened designation.” Experts band shorebirds on the leg, to monitor their migration, but interestingly this ended up proving that Wilson’s plovers remain here in Florida almost all year because of our nice year-round weather. “You might say they are the original Snowbirds,” Rae says with a laugh!
Most birdwatchers will see and interact with the Wilson’s and Snowy plovers, followed by Least Terns and Black skimmers, as well as American Oystercatchers, though those are far fewer. “We rope off the Critical Wildlife Area at the south end of Estero Island from April to August,” Rae explains, “because so many of the shorebirds are colony nesters and we don’t want people to disturb them in their natural habitat. By dividing the area, everyone can use and enjoy the beach safely, birds and people alike! Snowy and Wilson’s plovers tend to run all around on the beach, while Least Terns and Black skimmers stay closer to their nests and near their colony.”
Nesting shore birds come to Fort Myers Beach, especially to its southern end, because the sand is so soft it is easy to dig into, then they their eggs directly on the beach, as they do not build traditional nests with branches and leaves and twigs. Once they lay eggs, the incubation for Snowy plovers is 26 to 32 days; Wilson’s plovers 23 to 25 days; Least Terns at 20 to 25; and Black skimmers 21 to 23. “Most nests are at the south end of Fort Myers Beach,” Rae relates, “because of the amount of traffic and people that congregate at the north end.”
If you discover an unmarked shorebird nest on Fort Myers Beach, give it a wide berth and contact Rae immediately at 239-765-0202, extension 1312, or at email@example.com. “I will confirm the nest, then coordinate with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to stake it out, and add that information to our records. If you come across a nest, don’t touch it or the eggs, and if the parents are nearby, leave them alone. If you don’t, you run the risk of Mom dive-bombing your head. I have had a threatened parent fly directly toward my face, sort-of saying, ‘Hey, you are near my babies, so get away!’ If one thing doesn’t work, they step up on their game, including pooping on you, and that is why I own a wide-brimmed hat!”
Since nesting season lasts roughly six months, the birds you see in late winter are often different from those here in late summer. “You will notice that some birds come back that you missed, while others you thought might be around longer leave before you realize it – it is like a big-old changing of the guard! While Snowy and Wilson’s plovers hang around pretty much all the time, the Black skimmer, for instance, is very much a Summer bird.”
Those Little Faces!
Rae absolutely encourages people to photograph shorebirds, but from a safe distance: “Take as many photos as you like, but do not get any closer, especially to the babies, then ten feet. Most cameras, even cell phones, have zoom lenses, so you no longer need to be right on top of a nest to get a great picture.” Renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson declared the island’s Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area the best place in the world to photograph shorebirds.
Pets, particularly dogs, are another story: “We never let dogs in the Critical Wildlife Area, even on a leash outside of nesting season, although we do allow them on the remainder of Fort Myers Beach as long as they are on a six-foot, unexpandable leash. Also, please do not leave food or trash on the beach, as these attract crows that attack shorebird nests and hatchlings. I want people to know shorebirds play an important role to the beach ecosystem, as do humans, and by working together we can make everything go smooth and calm throughout nesting season, without any issues, as long as we respect each other.”
In a related environmental matter, Rae reminds all Fort Myers Beach residents that the island is now in its fertilizer ban season from June 1 through September 30. “Our Town Ordinances prohibit fertilizer applications at this time of year, to prevent runoff into the Bay following heavy summer thunderstorms, as this is crucial to preserve our habitat, water, and property.”
If you witness anyone violating the Critical Wildlife Area, immediately contact the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), the Lee County Sheriff’s Office or the Town of Fort Myers Beach. For information on Critical Wildlife Areas visit MyFWC.com.
As to what she enjoys most about nesting shorebird season, Rae says, “From the minute the babies are born, they are just so stinking cute! I mean – look at them; how could you not want to do everything possible to protect those little faces!”