Florida’s Gulf Coast provides a critical place for beach-nesting and wintering for native and migratory shorebirds. Though often invisible to us, millions of shorebirds build their nests along our beaches and dune systems. In particular, five shorebirds provoke local concern; Snowy Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatchers, Least Terns and Black Skimmers. These species, in all the world, find the shoreline of Florida the most optimal nesting ground. Laws protect these species so rare they’ve earned the distinction of Imperiled Species.
Help Protect Shore Birds
From February through August, the coastal habitat becomes the setting for courting, mating, laying and incubating eggs, and raising young for these remarkable creatures. This period in the shorebirds’ life cycle poses a particularly dangerous time as they share the shorelines with humans and predators. To lessen the threat, the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Audubon Society post corded, temporary fencing along beaches once chicks show activity. Crossing or entering the posted/roped areas violates the law during the nesting season.
Remember ways you can help protect these priceless species:
- Keep your distance. Try to stay at least 300 feet from a nest. If birds become agitated or leave their nests, you are too close. Birds calling out loudly, dive-bombing or appearing to have a broken wing signal you to back off.
- Never intentionally force birds to fly or run. When you cause birds to use energy pointlessly, you leave the eggs and chicks vulnerable to the sun’s heat or opportunistic predators such as ghost crabs or laughing gulls.
- Respect posted areas. Avoid posted nesting sites, stay off the dunes, and use designated boardwalks.
- Always keep pets on a leash. Do not permit your dog to approach shorebird nesting areas. Even well-behaved pets represent a threat and can disturb the birds.
- Do not feed wildlife, including gulls. Food scraps attract predators such as raccoons, coyotes, and crows, which prey on eggs and defenseless shorebird chicks.
- Remove all trash. Litter on beaches can entangle birds and other wildlife.
- Spread the word. If you see people continuing to disturb or damage nesting birds, you can report their activities to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC or *FWC on a cell phone or by texting [email protected]
- Report nests to Wildlife Alert. If you discover a nest, please bring it to the attention of the Plantation office and the office will notify FWC. Every nest counts.
- Download this helpful reference guide from the FWC. Its illustrative pictures will help you identify shore birds as well as signs and laws to know.
Least Terns arrive in April, nest and raise young on our oyster bars and the shell gravel between the beach dunes. They usually stay on the island until September/October when they head south. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Least Tern populations declined by about 88% between 1966 and 2015. They favor nesting areas also prized by humans for recreation and residential development, which often puts successful nesting at risk. Least Terns raise 1-3 young from a single clutch each year and live as long as 24 years.
Black Skimmers usually arrive in April to nest on our beaches. A few will stay local all year but most migrate to beaches in northern South America in winter. Because they nest right out on the beach, habitat loss, people, roaming dogs, and vehicles allowed to drive on the beach readily endanger their nests. Black Skimmers lie out flat on their nests to protect the eggs and chicks but often to no avail as they nest on beaches where people like to vacation.
Wilson’s Plovers look very similar to the Semi-palmated Plover except they have a significantly more prominent black ‘Jimmy Durante’ style beak. Classified as partial migrants, Wilson’s leave the United States, except for Florida, to winter south in Brazil. In Florida, Wilson’s Plovers occupy salt flats and sandy beaches year-round. They nest above the high-tide mark, usually not far from dunes. Because they favor habitats that attract beach-going tourists and development, the loss and degradation of their nesting and foraging habitats have been severe. People or dogs trespassing into protected reserves during the nesting season frequently cause nesting failure.
American Oystercatchers are found only in intertidal areas and adjacent beaches, especially barrier islands with few or no predators. They prefer sandy, shelly beaches, sandy spots in salt marshes, or even on mats of dead vegetation (wrack) in the upper part of salt marshes for nesting. On the Plantation, you will find them nesting mostly on our bayside oyster bars and islands. They generally stay all year, depending on the available food supply. In the 19th century, American oystercatchers became locally extinct in the northeast of the United States due to market hunting and egg collecting. After receiving protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, their range extended northward to re-occupy historical habitat as far north as New England. The oldest American Oystercatcher was at least 23 years, and 10 months old.
The snowy plover inhabits sandy beaches along coastal areas of the Americas as well as some inland saline lakes and riverbeds west of the Rocky Mountains. You’ll find this petite species in Florida along the Gulf of Mexico’s narrow fringe of sandy beaches. The breeding population here is disjunctive with one group breeding in northwest Florida from Franklin County west. The other breeds from Pasco to Collier counties in the southwest region of the state. On the Plantation, you can observe Snowy plovers year round but most commonly in the beach areas where they nest and forage for food to feed their chicks.