No mistake about it – summer’s coming! And while the soaring thermometer will send many Tampa Bay residents to the seaside, we aren’t the only ones who are hitting the beach. Summer is nesting season for many imperiled bird species, including black skimmers, least terns, and American oystercatchers.
Even if you’re no birder, you will likely recognize these distinctive species. Skimmers sport an outsized, red and black bill with which they “skim” along the water’s surface, hunting for fish. Oystercatchers don’t skim so much as poke, using their long, narrow bill to probe the shoreline for tasty invertebrates. And though they may be the smallest of the tern family, least terns put on quite a show with their acrobatic hover-plunge-splash fishing technique.
These beach-nesting species lay their eggs directly on the sand at local shores. Once the chicks hatch, adults – typically both parents — will tend their young anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Just like your favorite backyard birds, these careful caregivers must teach their little ones to fly.
“Sometimes it can be tricky for seabirds,” notes Holley Short, Audubon Florida’s Tampa Bay Area Shorebird Program Manager. “They have to not only learn how to fly, but also learn how to fish on the wing!”
Changes humans have brought to their nesting grounds have made things even trickier for feathered Floridians. Straying too close to a nest, or allowing young children or dogs to do so, can spook nesting birds. At worst, it may lead them to abandon their nests. Beachfront development, paired with erosion, can shrink the dune and shore habitat these birds require. Some birds have adapted to this “coastal squeeze” by nesting on the gravel rooftops of nearby buildings.
Climate change also poses a risk to these species. Sea level rise leads to bigger storm surge, meaning a major weather event can submerge or bury individual nests, even an entire breeding colony.
Be A Good Neighbor
Fortunately, there are many ways we can be better neighbors to shore birds. When you visit the beach, be sure to observe and obey any posted nesting signage, even if you don’t see birds. If birds dive-bomb you, it is likely that there is a nest close by. Move away carefully and give those critters some space! When leaving the beach, throw out or pack out any trash or food remnants — leaving them behind can attract predators who will also prey on eggs and chicks.
In September 2023, new Imperiled Beach-Nesting Birds (IBNB) guidelines, developed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), will go into effect. These rules will limit activities that could potentially disturb nesting colonies.
“These guidelines will be a huge help in regards with keeping our beach-nesting birds safe,” says Short.
Audubon also offers a unique opportunity for folks interested in doing more to protect these delightful denizens of the shore: become a bird steward. Bird stewards volunteer to monitor nesting sites and educate visitors about how to enjoy the beach safely and respectfully around these delicate areas. This is especially important work, considering how many visitors may have no idea what a treasury of unique bird species they can find on Florida beaches.
“Becoming a bird steward is incredibly rewarding,” says Short. “You have a direct impact on making a difference in the survival of a species!”
And those cute, fuzzy chicks you get to observe while stewarding? Short adds: “They’re a real plus.”