Triumph & Tragedy


Lover’s Key Shorebird Nesting

A hurricane several years ago ravaged portions of Lover’s Key/Carl E. Johnson State Park, narrowing its shoreline to about 50 yards, making it ill-suited for shorebird nesting. “It was sad to see the result of the storm, but often destruction brings a new beginning,” explains Park Services Specialist Katie Moses. “The beach was so thin that it was a terrible habitat, with nesting impossible, as shorebirds require a large open spaces. We turned that into an opportunity, and two years ago renourished 300 feet of new beach, as well as sea oats whose long leaves and extensive roots promote sand dune development.”

Lover’s Key Shorebird Nesting
Least Tern with chick. Photo by Pam Jones-Morton.

Lover’s Key enjoyed initial but limited shorebird success in 2015, with several Least tern and Wilson’s Plover nests and hatchlings, setting the stage for 2016. Shorebirds like open beaches with clear views to the water, so before nesting began on May 1, staff in April roped off the habitat. “Mostly this is to train people more than birds,” Katie jokes. “This is a permanently-isolated, vegetation-free zone that human beings should avoid and not disrupt.”

Lover’s Key Shorebird Nesting
Lover’s Key Shorebird Nesting area.

Friends of Lover’s Key bought the nesting area warning signs and ropes, as well as bringing a myriad of talents to benefit the park. “They are more than 425 members-strong, and are so devoted and knowledgeable,” marvels Katie. “They are indispensable.”

Under Water

Right on cue, Lover’s Key had
an outstanding early season with the shorebird program on the restored beach, with approximately 120 Least Tern nests. These birds are tiny, usually less than 10 inches long and under 2 ounces. “We were so happy,” recalls Katie. “Predators took a couple but we expect that. Sadly, however, Tropical Storm Colin hit in early June, causing the Gulf to come up the beach more than 300 feet, swamping the nests. We lost every one.”

Katie points out that while tragic, this occurred early in the season, meaning shorebirds may yet attempt to breed here again this year. “Nesting occurs all along the Gulf, and Florida provides a lot of beach regions, so that really helps them to thrive.” The Least Tern is the smallest of American terns, a subfamily of gulls. In addition to the southern United States, they frequent major river systems along the continent’s interior. Their upper parts are pale gray, with a white underbelly, white head with black cap, and a squeaking call.

Wilson’s Plover is a coastal wader that nests on bare scrapes of sandy beaches or sandbars. Adults are mainly dark gray with a short white wing bar and white tail sides. The underside is white, with pink legs that become brighter during breeding. They have a high whistle call and forage for especially crab and insects.

Solar-powered Shorebird Audio Call System in place at Lover’s Key State Park
Solar-powered Shorebird Audio Call System in place at Lover’s Key State Park

Unique tools to attract shorebirds to Lover’s Key include a solar-powered bird call and 38 wood replicas of Least Terns and Black Skimmers. “The audio call alerts overhead birds to scope out the park, then they see the replicas and think other birds are already here, so this must be a good place to nest and they join them,” Katie explains. “This is the first year we ever had Black Skimmer nests, but we don’t know why! We assume it is because we did such a good job in creating the proper habitat, and we ended up with 18 nests, so we had to rope off a larger area.”

Black Skimmers are a tern-like seabird and the largest of the three skimmer species, reaching up to 20 inches long with a 50-inch wingspan, and weighing 8 to 16 ounces. They are mainly black, with significant red in the bill, and have red legs and a distinctive barking kak-kak-kak call. They eat small fish, insects, and crustaceans, particularly at night, and are one of nature’s great loafers, chilling for hours at a time on sandbars in rivers and lagoons.

Shorebirds do not nest beyond the sea oats because that blocks their view of the water. They congregate in groups in wide-open sections of the beach, just like people do when they look for a good spot to have fun with their friends.

For The Birds

Katie cautions that “next to Mother Nature, nest flushing is the biggest issue. Shorebirds will not leave their eggs because nests are in hot sun with no shade, producing devastating heat. Most species nest to keep their eggs warm; these do to keep theirs cool, so if you flush them away, the eggs lose that cover and may not survive. Nesting takes roughly 21 days, and parents stay on them in the sun and heat as long as they can. Dogs off the leash are a nightmare, too!”

Nesting shorebirds are protective. “They let you know if you are too close,” advises Katie. “They will fly at and dive bomb you, and poop too!” She advises giving all birds a wide berth, including seagulls. “Whenever you make one flush, it has to use unnecessary energy. Southwest Florida, especially in the summer, is a tough place for shorebirds, with a harsh hot environment. People can go in the air conditioning, lay in the shade to cool off, or drink a refreshing beverage; shorebirds cannot.”

It is this resource management that Katie, who has a marine biology degree, enjoys most. “It is gratifying to work on the beach & estuaries, especially with turtles and shorebirds. Too often people think we need to separate humans and animals, but these must not be mutually exclusive. That is the beauty of Florida’s 171 State Parks; we foster and preserve habitats for people and wildlife to coexist.” She points out that the 1,400-acre Lover’s Key/Carl E. Johnson State Park has a visitation of just under 1 million annually; placing it in the top 5 in visitation.

For more information on shorebird nesting or the State Park, contact Katie at 239-463-4588 or The Lover’s Key/Carl E. Johnson shorebird nesting program, nature’s work in progress.


Gary Mooney


Photos courtesy of Lover’s Key State Park and Friends of Lover’s Key.