“While Southwest Florida nesting shorebird season is technically February 15 through September 1, we usually don’t see our first arrivals until early March,” said Rae Burns, the Environmental Technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. “The first to get here are Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, then Least terns about a week later, then finally Black skimmers, who come fashionably late to the party around May, so they will arrive soon. Our peak is late June through early July, but even when things slow down in August, watch out, as the little puffballs are still running around the beach growing up.”
Burns said the best place to see nesting shorebirds is the southern end of Estero Island in The Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA). “This is a roughly 50-acre site that extends from close to the southern end of Fort Myers Beach a few miles north, to near the Wyndham Garden Hotel. Shorebirds favor this protected habitat because it has much less foot traffic than the more populated stretches from the midpoint of the island north.” The late renowned ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, in fact declared this location the best place on Earth to view shorebirds!
While the CWA is home to nesting shorebirds, “give them their space,” advised Burns, “so you do not spook the parents into flying off their nests, as that exposes their eggs to predators and our hot sun, as even low 80-degree heat can cook an egg fast, and our hot summers are much higher than that. Once shorebirds arrive, they scrape the sand to create their nests, so the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) ropes off these large areas of the beach with yellow caution tape to give them the necessary room. The best way to view nesting shorebirds is from outside the caution tape, at a respectful distance, even roughly another 10 feet or so behind the tape, just to be on the safe side, and bring binoculars, so you can see them close-up without being that close.”
Dogs, Cameras & Bikes
While the Town allows dogs on 6-foot hard leashes on most of Fort Myers Beach, “we prohibit dogs at all times in the CWA,” Burns reported. “Not only so they will not chase the birds, but because dogs are just silly-happy and even good-natured barking can scare bird parents off their nests and endanger their eggs. Photographing nesting shorebirds is such a concern that we actually have a free pamphlet on ‘Photography Do’s & Don’ts at Town Hall, so pick one up! Most cameras today have terrific lenses, even cell phones, to get up-close photographs so you don’t need to be right in their faces (or beaks). In fact, if you get too close, they will be right in your face, flying directly at you to peck your forehead and poop on you, which can be scary and disgusting indeed!”
Bicycles present other issues, especially those with wide beach tires. “Many bicyclists stay a good distance from the caution tape and think that is responsible, but young birds don’t know to stay behind the yellow tape, especially once they get a bit older and begin to explore. If they see a predator, those tire grooves look like excellent hiding places, but bicyclists tend to ride in grooves created by other bikers, and you most likely won’t see the baby hiding in the groove and that can be tragic, so avoid biking in the CWA if you can. Remember the Town prohibits all electric bicycles, not only in the CWA but anywhere on the actual beach itself.”
Burns reminded everyone to “never-ever touch or pick up eggs, and never feed nesting shorebirds, as they cannot digest people food; let them forage as nature intends. These rules are in place because many nesting shorebirds species are on the State’s Threatened List, though none are on the Federal Endangered Species List, and we do everything possible to ensure they do not end up there.”
So Darned Cute!
Nesting shorebirds favor Fort Myers Beach “because we have plenty of sand, where they can scrape in and make their nests to lay their eggs, so conditions are perfect for them,” she offered. “Plus we have wide beaches, particularly at our southern end, where we can have 400 or more birds in large colonies all in one nesting area, yet spread out enough to not be right on top of each other. Fort Myers Beach is the end of their migration route, so this is not a pit stop, but where they lay their nests and raise their babies, so they are here for several months.”
By the time the bird babies leave Fort Myers Beach, “they are at the point of life I would describe as a juvenile adult,” added Burns. “They are not yet old enough to start their own family, still working up to that in another year or so, but they are at enough of an adult stage where they have the correct coloring and can fly around OK on their own. If they were people, I would say they are somewhere in their early 20s.”
For Burns, her favorite part of nesting shorebird season is easy: “It is the babies, of course – they are just so darned cute! People should care about them for that reason alone, but they also do wonders for our environment. If you have large colonies of nesting shorebirds, you tend to have a healthy and stable fish population. They also eat a lot of the things that are in the wrack line, so they are good in that aspect as well. There is no reason why people and nesting shorebirds cannot safely share the beach, if we just employ common sense, pay attention to a few simple rules, and give them the space they need to raise their families. If we as people do these things, we can live with nesting shorebirds in peace!”
By Gary Mooney