Nesting Shorebirds Love FMB

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“They’re All Here Now!”

“Typically Nesting Shorebird Season is February 15 through roughly the beginning of September, but on Fort Myers Beach, they do not show up until around early March,” explained Bethany Powhida, a Shorebird Biologist for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “This is a tremendous area of Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns and Black Skimmers. The first to arrive are the Snowy and Wilson’s Plover, then the Least Terns, and last but not least the Black Skimmers, but now that we are approaching the season’s peak, they are all here now!”

Daily, Bethany monitors the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), but she covers all of Fort Myers Beach as well. “Most of my duties center around the CWA because that is where we see the vast majority of nests, because the beach is so wide and there tends to be far fewer people there, making it the perfect area. Just recently, however, I discovered a Wilson’s Plover nest at Bowditch Point Park, at the northernmost tip of the island, so that was really cool!”

Bethany said that the nesting season “so far is going really well, as we approach the halfway point, with the numbers looking pretty good! Unfortunately, about a week ago we had heavy rains and some flooding caused by the effects of Tropical Storm Cristobal that did wash away a few nests, but there is still plenty of time in the season for shorebirds to lay new ones. On the positive side, many of the chicks already hatched, so they were able to scurry away to protection.”

Bethany’s duties include monitoring the CWA in particular, “searching for new nests. Once I find one, I mark and rope it off so people leave it alone, allowing the eggs to first incubate, the chicks to hatch, then the babies to fledge, where their feathers and wing muscles sufficiently develop so they can fly. It is so exciting when you find that first nest in a brand new season, then watch them hatch, as the chicks are really cute and when they run around and play, just so goofy! My favorite part is when they fledge, as that proves that everything we do for them is really coming together and worth it.”

Little Estero Island CWA

Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area boundaries as per Florida Wildlife Conservation.

The southern end of Estero Island is home to a protected beach habitat that features a vast array of shorebirds unlike any other place. The Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area is a 50-acre site with dunes and lagoons. The FWC establishes CWAs under the Florida Administration Code to protect, with landowner support, important wildlife concentrations from human disturbance during crucial life cycle periods like nesting and migration. There are currently 32 CWAs in Florida, with six in Lee County.

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. It is rich with mangroves, sea oats, panic grass, and vegetation. During the fall migration, millions of shorebirds make their way to the Florida coastline and remain throughout the winter, exhausted, hungry and at the limit of their endurance, for food and rest. Barrier islands and sandbars are favored sites because they afford protection from predators and the elements.

Skimmers, Plovers & Terns

Black Skimmers spook easy and once one gets scared, the whole colony flies off their nests to avoid predation. It is easy to identify Black Skimmers since they have such distinguishable colors: a large black and red bill and noticeable underbite, black back and top of the head feathers, with white bellies, face and wing tips.

Wilson’s Plover with chicks. Photos by Penny Jarrett.

Snowy Plovers are quite small, approximately the size of a sparrow, with a short, thin black bill and gray legs. Their body color runs from very light grey-almost white to grey brown with a white stomach, with what some call a necklace of black feathers around their neck that becomes more pronounced in males during breeding season. Typically when they move, they run forward a few steps, pause, then run again. Fort Myers Beach is lucky to have Snowy Plovers year-round; the best place to see them is at the wrack line during early morning and early evening.

Wilson’s Plovers nest on sparsely to densely vegetated saline areas, including beaches above high tide, dune areas, and the edges of lagoons, and that is why most of their nests are on Fort Myers Beach’s southern area. Males tries to attract females by making several nest pits, called scrapes; she will chose the scrape she likes best in which to lay her eggs. After chicks hatch, they stay with their parents for protection.

Least tern guards chick.

Least Terns are known for their fierce protection of their nesting colonies. They nest directly on the beach, with nothing between the egg and sand, so parents vigilantly provide shade for eggs and just-hatched chicks, standing over them so their own shadow creates protection from the sun and predators. When there is a threat to the colony, an alert call warns all adult Least Terns to defend their nests. They chase off smaller ground predators, like Ghost Crabs, by mercilessly pecking them. For larger predators, adults fly at their heads until they are just about to hit them, then swoop over. They hover overhead as well and poop on the offending species until they leave, and this includes people!

Coexisting Together

So is the beach big enough for nesting shorebirds and people to coexist together?

“Folks have been really great so far this season,” Bethany raved! “Everyone seems to be keeping an eye out for them and go out of their way to not interact with the shorebirds and give them the space they need, and that is fantastic to see. When you come across the roped-off areas marked by the FWC bird signs, please stay out of and away from those spots. The biggest concern is that your incursion will cause the adult birds to flush, as they are here to rest and raise their families, and anytime they do, that is energy they could use for more constructive necessities. On top of that, for those who have eggs, anytime they must leave their nest because you caused them to go, that exposes their eggs to predators and the elements. With the heat we have in Southwest Florida during the summer, it doesn’t take long for the hot sun to do terrible things to the eggs at this time of year.”

This includes your dogs as well, Bethany reminded. Dogs are prohibited in the CWA at all times. “For people and pets, please keep your distance, give the shorebirds their space, and use common sense. The best way to observe nesting shorebirds is through binoculars, so you keep the appropriate safe distance. People often want to take photographs, and fortunately cameras are so sophisticated today – even on your cellphones – that you can do this well behind the roped-off areas.” The renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, in fact, declared the Little Estero CWA the best place in the world to photograph shorebirds.

“You can tell if you are too close,” Bethany cautioned, “when the birds call out loudly at or divebomb you, and the Least Terns in particular really know how to get your undivided attention – they will poop on you!” 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.

With Fort Myers Beach and the CWA near the peak of Nesting Shorebird Season, “the babies are running around all over the beach now,” concluded Bethany. “While the birds will continue to lay nests for the next few months, with chicks being born and fledging until around the end of August, please pay extra-special attention. Remember as well that, while we mark and rope off their nesting areas, that doesn’t mean anything to the babies! They usually wonder off to go exploring, generally to the lagoon or down to the shoreline, but when they see you coming, they will hide and that is often in a bicycle tire track or even in footprints, so when you notice the yellow platelet signs with the birds on them, you really need to keep your eyes wide open. We are glad that people are interested in the nesting shorebirds, but we need you to work with us to protect them!”