The southern end of Estero Island is home to a protected beach habitat that features a vast array of shorebirds unlike any other place. Known as The Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, the 50-acre site extends north to just short of the Wyndham Garden several miles to the north.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) establishes Critical Wildlife Areas (CWA) under the Florida Administration Code to protect with landowner support important wildlife concentrations from human disturbance during crucial life cycle periods such as nesting and migration. There are currently 20 across Florida, with the State considering other CWAs for Fort Myers Beach.
The Little Estero Island CWA is a favorite spot for birders, a significant nesting area, and an important over-wintering spot for at least 68 species of endangered shore and wading birds such as snowy and Wilson’s plovers; willet and black skimmers; Sandwich, Royal, and Least terns; American oystercatchers; great blue herons; brown pelicans; green, snowy and reddish egrets, Ruddy turnstones; and roseate spoonbills, as well as sea turtles.
“These birds like a habitat with a lot of sand and little vegetation, making our beaches perfect,” explains Rae Blake, the environmental and stormwater technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. As a designated nesting area, the FWC closes off this stretch annually from April 1 to August 31, with posted signs, stakes and ribbon.
During the Fall migration, “millions of shorebirds make their way to the Florida coastline and remain here throughout the Winter,” Rae says. “Many stop here, exhausted and hungry and at the very limit of their endurance, for food and rest before continuing. Barrier islands and sandbars are favored sites because they afford protection from predators and the elements.”
Rae describes our CWA as “a dynamic beach that changes all the time.” This is appropriate as Little Estero used to be its own independent island before sand washed down from the north and connected it to the south end of Estero. Now Little Estero Island has a swamp at its back and beach to the front. “Flush cut-through water channels run through the sand, allowing beach water to mix with that near the mangroves, exchanging vital materials like oxygen and nitrogen necessary for survival. Without this flow, water would be stagnant with algae and bacteria.”
Nesting season officially ended in August, reports Rae. “It was really good for the terns, but not so much for the skimmers, whose young were often eaten by seagulls. That may sound horrific but it is all a part of nature’s cycle of life.” Now in migratory months, with birds on their way south, Rae says that “we do not go out of our way to encourage people to come to our CWA, and since the south end of the island is not central to tourists with limited parking, this is not a concern. We do however like visitors who are respectful of the environment and wildlife.”
Rae offers these simple rules: “Keep your distance; with a good rule of thumb about 500 feet from any concentration of birds. Do not ever intentionally force birds to fly; do not make them waste their limited energy to fly away from you because they have other more important places to fly, so please do not run through and spook them. If you encounter birds on the beach, in the lagoon, or on a sandbar, always give them the right of way.” Just as Rae relates this, a jogger purposely deviates his course to sprint through a large flock of resting birds.
“Keep your pet on a leash,” Rae continues. “You may have the world’s greatest pet but its mere presence can frighten and stress the birds. Do not take live shells; if the mollusk is still inside, just let it go, but take all the empty ones you want! Marvel as the terns ‘fish’ – they gaze down to spot a fish, then dive-bomb straight into the water to catch it, or watch the hunting strategy of the great heron who extends its wings until fish swim under the shade to nab dinner.
Finally, she says, “take photographs! There are plenty of fantastic photo opportunities out here. Better yet, just sit back, relax, and enjoy – there are great birds everywhere!” Renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, in fact, declared the site the best place in the world to photograph shorebirds.
Erosion is a risk for the CWA and sometimes so are people. Just this week, the Town of Fort Myers Beach was asked to weigh in on a request to Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by property owners adjacent to the CWA to the to build a boardwalk through the CWA to the beach. Town Council was opposed to the idea and agreed to share their concerns with the DEP.
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 at 239-765-0202. For more information on Critical Wildlife Areas visit MyFWC.com.
Photos by Gary Mooney