We appreciate the beautiful sight of hundreds of birds taking wing as we walk a beach or cruise by an island in our boat or personal watercraft. But repeated disturbances inadvertently threaten the survival of our feathered friends.
During the spring and fall migrations, millions of shorebirds make their way to Florida. A number of these birds stop at points along our coastline and remain throughout the winter. Many more simply stop over for some food and a brief rest before continuing their travels.
These birds may have flown hundreds of miles before reaching Florida. Exhausted and hungry, they land on our shores pushed to the very limit of their physical abilities. The simple act of flushing them off their feeding and resting grounds burns up their reserves of energy. Weakened and vulnerable shorebirds with a reduced ability to feed may not complete their journey.
Herons, Egrets, and their Kin
Of the 14 kinds of water birds (like herons, egrets and pelicans) in Florida, only 4 are flourishing. Most of these "colonial" birds nest in large, multi-species groups. When wading birds are frightened off their nests, they may knock their eggs or young out of the nest or leave them exposed to temperature extremes and predators. If disturbed frequently, adults will abandon their nests altogether and often times the entire nesting colony may fail.
Many species of Florida' s water birds nest right on the beach. The eggs and young are exposed and vulnerable. This group of ground-nesting birds includes gulls, terns, black skimmers, plovers, willets and oystercatchers. They have adapted to the rugged coastal environment of temperature extremes, hurricanes, high winds and coastal flooding. Barrier islands and sandbars are favored nesting sites because they afford protection from land predators; human disturbance and domestic animals are another matter.
Many places that once were isolated are now teeming with boat and beach enthusiasts (and their pets). When birds are flushed off their nests, eggs and young are exposed to the intense sun, cold of night, aerial predators like crows and gulls, or marauding dogs. On a hot summer afternoon, temperatures at ground level can rise to well over 100 degrees, and unprotected eggs of beach-nesting birds are virtually invisible on the ground and young chicks freeze in fear in a prone position when danger approaches; it' s easy for unknowing pedestrians to crush the eggs or kill young birds accidentally.
How You Can Help
When enjoying the water, remember that while you are there to recreate, other creatures' survival may depend on your behavior. Due to the high speed, maneuverability, sound, and ability to navigate in shallow waters, personal watercrafts have an especially disrupting effect on many species of wildlife. Please follow these simple rules to minimize impacts on wildlife:
- When you see a concentration of birds, either on the shore or in the trees, PLEASE, keep your distance. A good "rule of thumb" is to stay at least 500 feet away. Minimizing disturbance to concentrations of birds is the key to conserving them.
- PLEASE do not intentionally force birds to fly. If you see birds on a beach, island, or sandbar, walk or steer around them. Again, avoiding disturbance to them is the best approach.
- PLEASE avoid running your boat or personal watercraft close to shore, except to idle to or from a destination point. Because habitat destruction has resulted in an ever-decreasing amount of shoreline available to wildlife, almost all mangrove islands, beaches, mud flats, and other shallow water and shoreline habitats are important to feeding, resting and nesting birds.
- Birds like herons, egrets and pelicans generally nest in the same places from year to year. Be on the lookout for large concentrations of birds (especially large white birds) in trees growing in the water or on islands, especially during the spring or summer months. Get to know where nesting colonies are located in your area. PLEASE avoid these colonies of birds during the nesting season.
- PLEASE keep pets leashed when visiting the shore and never approach a bird colony accompanied by your dog. One loose dog can destroy a colony of ground-nesting birds in a matter of minutes.
- PLEASE support posting efforts. Some places are posted with sign warning that the area supports a bird colony and advising people to avoid that area during the nesting season. Honor these closed areas and encourage others to do the same.