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Shorebirds nest on shifting sands, so do not disturb

As I See It

Friday, April 02, 2010

Media contact: Chairman Rodney Barreto

The area of the beach cordoned off with signs or sticks connected by twine marked with flagging is not a crime scene. It is where shorebirds are nesting. Think of the temporary fencing as a "Do not disturb" sign.

Birds, of course, don't recognize roped-off areas as safe zones. They forage for food and this time of year lay eggs in open, sandy areas, where people usually walk, throw Frisbees, fly kites or even drive beach-cleaning vehicles. When young birds crack out of their eggs and start scampering across the sand, they, too, are vulnerable to crushing by unobservant people's feet, dogs and vehicles.

So I urge beachgoers to be alert while shorebirds and seabirds are nesting. Many species are threatened, including the least tern, black skimmer, American oystercatcher and some plovers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) biologists and volunteers have been marking off nesting areas, but it's an ongoing process, as birds come and go, selecting new spots. That's why we must be vigilant, particularly now.

Florida's spring break "season" isn't over yet, and state residents and tourists are capitalizing on warmer weather and heading to beaches, right at the peak of shorebird nesting season. According to VisitFlorida.com, the top activity for tourists is going to the state's inviting beaches. That means most of the 42 million tourists here just from January to June will be on the beach at some point. That's a lot of foot traffic where birds might be nesting.

Another reason we must watch out for the little eggs and chicks is habitat loss. There are fewer suitable places for them to nest. Competition by nonnative species and pollution already threaten hundreds of species of migratory birds, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Secretary Ken Salazar noted in his "State of the Birds" report issued in early March.

Climate change is the new threat. According to Salazar's report, the fact that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline is testament to the need for a plan of action.

The concern that climate change could dramatically alter shorebirds' habitat and food supply and push many species toward extinction isn't just one agency's opinion. Experts from the nation's leading conservation organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share information that shaped Salazar's analysis. As a member of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the FWC-supplied data became part of the analysis, and the FWC certainly hopes it will be part of the solution.

One of the findings from the report is that oceanic birds are the most vulnerable species because they don't raise many young each year. Also, "they face challenges from a rapidly changing marine ecosystem; and they nest on islands that may be flooded as sea levels rise," the report notes.

Look at Florida's beaches. They're very narrow strips of sand already vulnerable to wave erosion, and currents constantly scour and reform our 663 miles of beaches. This shifting sand is a favorite place for nesting shorebirds.

Big-beaked oystercatchers usually nest in shallow depressions scraped out of the sand. The best places to spot them are around Apalachicola Bay, Cedar Key and Tampa Bay. Black skimmers and least terns nest in colonies, also in simple scrapes in open sand. Black skimmers, found on Gulf and Atlantic coasts, are a species of special concern. All are vulnerable to disturbance.

The least tern lays eggs from mid-April in South Florida to the beginning of May to the north. The eggs don't hatch until 21 days later and, although the young leave the nest in a few days, they can't fly to safety for another three weeks. As you can see, if we interrupt shorebirds' courtship and mating rituals, or their month-and-a-half-long hatching and fledging process, we're reducing opportunities for their long-term survival.

The FWC is working with communities and other agencies to ensure the survival of shorebirds. For instance, it is developing an educational pilot program for Pinellas County to address the fact that least terns have taken to nesting on flat roofs, especially gravel ones. The program seeks common ground between conservationists and property owners.

So next time you are enjoying the scenery along Florida's beaches, also look down and watch your step; keep your eyes peeled for little eggs resting on the sand and for bird activity. Resist the temptation to run toward a flock of birds to get them to take wing for that great photo opportunity. You wouldn't like it if an elephant came running toward you just to see you flee. And keep your dog on a leash if you're visiting a beach that allows pets.

These simple precautions are the least we can do for our feathered friends who share the beach with us. Give them space and do not disturb them.

To learn more about shorebirds, go to MyFWC.com/Wildlife and click on "Species Information."



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