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Restoring Florida's Shorebird and Seabird Populations

snowy plover

Florida is a state with a wealth of bird life, and that’s particularly true along our hundreds of miles of coastline. These beautiful and productive habitats have also attracted us – humans – and have done so for millennia. With increased human populations, however, brings loss of habitat and other negative affects for our shorebirds. More humans can also lead to accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which impacted shorebirds all throughout the Gulf. Initiated in 2017, this project was created to establish a shorebird program dedicated to the successful restoration of shorebird and seabird populations impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This project has three components - FWC's Habitat & Species Conservation, FWC's Fish & Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), and Audubon FL. The three arms of the program are implementing Florida's Beach-nesting bird plan - to increase the population of the five focal species by 10% by 2029. The five focal species are: American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates), black skimmer (Rynchops niger), least tern (Sternula antillarum), snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus), and Wilson’s plover (Charadrius wilsonia).

This project expands upon foundational shorebird conservation work funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Fund (NFWF) and others by inaugurating a dedicated shorebird and seabird program for the State of Florida – The Shorebird Program. FWC works with its key partner, Audubon Florida, to recover shorebird populations using five strategies: reduce human disturbance, manage habitat, manage predation, inform management & track outcomes, and improve regulatory coordination. The FWRI team contributes substantially to each of the first four strategies and serves as lead for the effort to inform management and track outcomes.

This project funded FWRI staff resources to 1) expand and enhance the Florida Shorebird Database, the centralized data repository for monitoring data collected by Florida Shorebird Alliance (FSA) partners, 2) develop baseline abundance estimates for the focal species, 3) fill data gaps in the Florida Keys and for rooftop nesting birds, 4) monitor logistically challenging sites not monitored by FSA partners, 5) refine monitoring protocols and guidance for FSA partners, 6) evaluate management and conservation actions, 7) support data needs for regulatory coordination and permitting, 8) develop on-the-fly data summaries and statistically valid interpretation for partners to support real-time management actions, 9) collaborate with local and out-of-state partners and will disseminate Shorebird Program methods and results to local, regional, national, and international stakeholders in the form of presentations, manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals, reports, and outreach.

The expansion of staff and resources allowed the program to expand survey coverage, improve QA/QC function, meet growing demands/workload associated with >115,000 records in the Florida Shorebird Database, increase staff-led targeted data collection for real-time data analysis and rapid responses to emergent management challenges, and provide the information required to make more fundamental programmatic shifts over time. In having quality data, researchers and other staff achieve benefits in efficiency, increased public confidence, reliability of information, and ultimately learning and improved decision making - all considered benefits and rewards of adaptive management.

This project focuses resources primarily on portions of the Southwest coast and the Panhandle with additional resources for Northeast Florida. Researchers track progress toward population goals at the statewide scale.

With more than ten years of data in the Florida Shorebird Database already, researchers have the ability to detect species population changes; to measure effects of restoration, management, and conservation actions; and to understand the effects of ecological processes – like hurricanes – on bird populations. The Shorebird Program has made it possible to track nesting outcomes, refine local conservation actions, develop strategies to recover statewide populations, and establish the baseline population estimates that are crucial for gauging progress toward meeting population goals and adaptively managing important nesting sites.

Typically, researchers rely on a suite of strategies to achieve conservation success at any given site, and it is the FSA partners who make this approach possible. Complementary strategies implemented at a site over time lead to local, and ultimately statewide, conservation gains. Shorebirds and seabirds in Florida are management-dependent species, and ever-increasing human populations living and recreating on Florida's coastlines mean more human disturbance, higher predator abundance, and continued regulatory conflicts. The successful recovery of beach-nesting birds requires a multi-pronged and adaptive approach to shorebird conservation.

Coastal habitats are naturally dynamic environments that are globally stressed by human population growth and climate change. Beaches in Florida are highly sought after for development and tourism, leaving little remaining suitable habitat for coastal-dependent birds, and creating conditions where birds are dependent on management for survival. For example, due to the lack of suitable habitat in some areas of Southwest Florida, some species – like American oystercatchers – have been documented nesting on flat rooftops which contain gravel or other loose substrate. The goal of shorebird and seabird conservation work in Florida is to improve the conservation status of all beach-nesting birds, even those outside the immediate study area, as the results of this study should be able to be put into practice across the state and region.

Most shorebird species spend some portion of their life history beyond the state’s boundaries. Populations, therefore, will be affected by external factors beyond the immediate influence of the Shorebird Program. To address this to the extent possible, researchers continue to export the knowledge they gain and the conservation models that have proven effective. This includes staff participation in regional, national, and even international conservation efforts and information exchange. FWRI researchers regularly communicate with the broader shorebird conservation community at national conferences, within working groups, as part of our response to the DWH oil spill, and in other venues.

Research for this project is conducted year-round. The FWRI sections involved with this project are Wildlife Research, Avian Research subsection; as well as FWRI’s Information and Science and Management section. FWC’s division of Habitat and Species Conservation also contributed to this project.