For The Birds!
When most beach residents and visitors think of the iconic Mound House, perhaps they think of Estero Island’s oldest standing structure, now owned and operated by the Town of Fort Myers Beach. Maybe it’s the historic tours, or magnificent grounds and gardens. What many may not consider, however, is its fantastic series of nature and education programs. If this is you, then you are missing an essential component of the Mound House experience, especially now, as it debuts new events for Summer 2017.
“Beach Nesting Birds” in late June was one such offering, to walk the southern end of Fort Myers Beach, adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), to look for and learn about nesting shorebirds including the Snowy plover, Wilson’s plover, Least tern, and Black skimmer. In addition to shoes that can get wet, participants brought binoculars, cameras, water, sunglasses, and – crucially, as we learned – hats!
“I came to Southwest Florida four years ago, when I was with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), to monitor beach nesting birds,” says Penny Jarrett, Mound House Education Coordinator who led our hike. “I liked it so much that when that ended, I found a job here!”
When shorebirds look for a nesting area, they search for big wide beaches without much human disturbance, making south Estero Island perfect, as it is off-season for tourists, and even most condominium owners go north for summer. “Snowy plovers are the first to arrive, generally in February,” Penny explains. “You can tell they are here by looking for round circles in the sand, as they scrape out an area to test it for a good nesting location. They are endangered, very small, and face a lot of threats, as they are food to many critters.”
Wilson’s Plovers prefer more vegetation, so they tend to nest in the CWA, from the island’s south end 2-1/2 miles north to the Wyndham Garden Hotel. “They come up from South and Central America,” Penny says, “showing up religiously every year to set up a colony here.” Black skimmers are the last to nest, after most Least terns hatch out. Shorebirds nest where they were previously successful, often in the exact same spot as in prior years.
Once shorebirds lay their eggs, they take roughly 25 days to hatch. Snowy plover eggs are the size of chocolate candy Easter eggs, while Black skimmer ones are often too large for predators to eat. “Keep an eye out under your feet for eggs and chicks,” Penny cautions. “They are very small and their color blends them into the sand. The FWC marks off nesting sites, as you often cannot see them. We do not rake the beach in nesting season, to prevent destroying nests and killing hatchlings, and we receive great cooperation from private property and condo owners, who work hand-in-hand with us.”
Once hatchlings arrive, Penny thinks that “shorebirds are the best parents in the world! They never leave eggs, not in the heat or storms or in lightning, and both Mom and Dad are diligent, as the little tiny fuzzball hatchlings immediately run everywhere. If you come near their hatchlings, be ready for a fight; their main defense is to fly right at you to drive you away, or they unload their poop on you, so wear a hat! Adults will sacrifice themselves for their babies, explaining why I say they are incredible parents. They raise their young for about three weeks, until hatchlings learn to fly.”
Parents incubate eggs at a constant temperature, either sitting on the nest, or in extreme heat standing over it for hours to provide shade. “If they have to fend off people or loose dogs, eggs can quickly overheat and not hatch, as shorebirds lose about 70% of their young to predators or nature,” Penny says. Males and females rear their young together, but they do not mate for life. Once hatchlings are born, males take on the primary responsibility so females can mate again.
Babies feed on worms, crustaceans and insects, “with the wrack line a great food source, so leave it alone, as this system works great,” Penny implores. “It is truly remarkable how much energy they get from things in the sand; I wish I could channel that much energy from my diet! Another source are Horseshoe crabs that lay 30,000 eggs at one time, with most of those to be food, so shorebirds enjoy a real feast!”
Ghost Crabs & King Tides!
Primary predators are snakes, gulls, night herons and Ghost crabs, but these are natural and in the circle of life; as if on cue, a Least tern chases away a large Ghost crab that was looking to make a meal out of its young! “A problem caused directly by humans are crows,” Penny tells us, “because of garbage we leave behind, then they see chicks and say, ‘I’ll take one of those too, thank you very much,’ so it is important to clean up after ourselves.” Another issue earlier this year was the full moon “King Tide”: “It came up all the way, high on the beach, before quickly receding. We lost several nests but fortunately it was early enough in the season that many birds did re-nest.”
Shorebirds often travel thousands of miles to nest, exhausting them completely by the time they arrive upon our beaches. “They need food and time and plenty of space to recover,” Penny says, “so it is beholding of us who love the beach to give them that, so this is really important and another big reason to leave them alone, as if they have to fly at you for protection, that takes a huge toll on them, as it is just as hot for the birds as it is for us.”
If you witness anyone violating the CWA, please immediately contact the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at 239-477-1000, or the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202. For CWA information, visit MyFWC.com.
Mound House admission is $10 for ages 13 & up, $8 for students with IDs, $5 ages 6 to 12, and 5 & under free, with Fort Myers Beach residents receiving a 50% discount. It is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Mound House is at 451 Connecticut Street, with additional parking at 216 Connecticut. For details on its nature and education programs, see the companion article in this edition of The Island Sand Paper; for information call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org.
Renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson declared the south end of Fort Myers Beach and its CWA, “the best place in the world to photograph shorebirds.” “Peterson studied over 10,000 species of birds throughout his life, from all over the world,” Penny offers, “and he never found a better spot for birds! Our beach is critical for nesting and for resting, making it a very special place that we must preserve this way. This is the reason I came to Fort Myers Beach in February 2013, and I feel really fortunate – this is a Dream Come True!”