“How did the shorebirds and seabirds do this year?” is a question Audubon staff hear frequently this time of year. Overall – very well, despite Tropical Storm Colin overwashing Gulf Coast nest sites on June 6th and despite late-season Hurricane Hermine that hammered remaining nest sites with storm surge on September 2nd. And we have hundreds of volunteer bird stewards around the state to thank for investing thousands of hours in the ongoing work of public outreach and education while chaperoning nesting colonies on weekends and holidays.
Highlights at nesting hotspots around the state follow for:
- Florida Panhandle beaches and rooftops
- Pinellas, Sarasota, and Collier county beaches
- Tampa Bay wading bird rookeries
- Northeast Florida beaches
In the Panhandle, seabird colonies and solitary nesting shorebirds populated 29 different beach nesting sites from Pensacola beach to Alligator Point. Snowy Plovers, Least Terns and Black Skimmers nested across the entire region while Caspian, Royal, Gull-billed, and Sandwich terns, Brown Pelicans, American Oystercatchers, Laughing Gulls, and Wilson’s Plovers nested primarily at the more secluded Franklin County sites. It was a hard year for many of these species at sites monitored by Audubon staff in the panhandle. Audubon biologists found over 1200 Least Tern nests but only 170 fledged chicks. Black Skimmers did a bit better with 503 nests found and 303 chicks fledging. Snowy Plovers also had a tough year with only 36 chicks fledging from Audubon monitored sites.
Although red tide exposure caused some mortality among the region’s Snowy Plovers last winter, our Audubon/State Park hybrid teams monitored a population rebound highlighted by 20 Snowy Plover chicks fledging on the remote beaches of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
The birds did their part by getting down to nesting business in April and May but they faced a big challenge in early June when Tropical Storm Colin came barreling out of the Gulf, making landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region on June 6th. Storm surge, wind, and rain ahead of TS Colin overwashed nests from the Big Bend region into the western Panhandle. Since this was still early in the season, shorebirds and seabirds re-nested in place or joined active colonies farther inland that were not overwashed.
Hurricane Hermine followed closely in Colin’s track in early September. Nesting was already completed at most sites but young, flightless Brown Pelicans remained on Lanark Reef. Most of the chicks survived the storm on the island, but two chicks washed away were rescued by Audubon field technicians and taken to a local rehabilitation facility.
Volunteer bird stewards played a vital role in the success of many of the nest sites that were not impacted by the tropical systems this year. The annual Blue Angels Air Show on July 16th brought an estimated 100,000 people to Pensacola beach, creating a sea of humanity around two Least Tern and Black Skimmer nesting colonies. Hard-working volunteers chaperoned the colonies throughout the air show and these colonies successfully fledged young.
Between Pensacola and Tyndall Air Force Base in Bay County, Audubon’s Panhandle rooftop program staff found 27 gravel rooftops hosting an estimated 1,000 active Least Tern nests. The SS Dixon Primary School in Santa Rosa County was successfully chick-proofed with perimeter fencing for a total of eight chick-proofed rooftops in the Panhandle. The school hosted an active Killdeer nest in addition to Least Terns that fledged about 40 chicks. The chick-proofed Chateau Motel in Panama City hosted nesting Black Skimmers in addition to Least Terns. A Panhandle-first rooftop camera system was placed on the Chateau Motel roof and proved invaluable for accurate counts of nests and the estimated 200 chicks that fledged at the site.
With funding support from Audubon Florida and a boat loaned by FWC, Clearwater Audubon volunteers transported a total of 40 bird stewards to Three Rooker Island for seven-hour work shifts on 32 weekend days and holidays between April 30th and August 6th. The island is part of Anclote Key Preserve State Park and hosts thousands of nesting Royal, Sandwich, and Caspian Terns, Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers. Disturbances from dogs transported to the island by boaters is a main focus of public outreach and this season stewards logged 149 dog encounters that were largely dispatched through education rather than law enforcement. Successfully fledged young included 80 Black Skimmers, 1400 Royal Terns, 375 Sandwich Terns, 12 Caspian Terns, 8400 Laughing Gulls, 470 White Ibis, and 8 Reddish Egrets.
In Pinellas County, 40-60% of the initial nests in Black Skimmer colonies at Sand Key, Indian Shores, and St. Pete Beach washed out during passage of TS Colin. The skimmers renested quickly and fledged young from those second nests in addition to many chicks fledged earlier from the nests that were still intact following the storm. All told more than 300 juvenile skimmers and more than 15 Wilson's Plovers fledged from Pinellas County's mainland beaches.
Farther south in Sarasota County, an estimated 205 Black Skimmer chicks fledged from a single colony on Lido Beach. About 170 chicks fledged from nests prior to passage of TS Colin and another 110 chicks fledged from eggs laid after the storm. Five Snowy Plovers fledged from eight nests on Siesta Key, the largest number in recent years. Thirty-three Audubon bird stewards invested almost 1,500 hours in protecting birds and conducting public outreach on both Lido Beach and Siesta Key.
In Collier County, despite initial setbacks caused by Fish Crows and Tropical Storm Colin, beach nesting birds had a wildly successful season. In the Big Marco Pass and Second Chance Critical Wildlife Areas (CWAs), 450 pairs of Least Terns produced over 460 chicks and 480 pairs of Black Skimmers produced over 500 chicks. In the CWAs and other sites nearby, 22 pairs of Wilson’s Plovers fledged a total of 16 chicks.
Audubon bird stewards, Rookery Bay’s Team Ocean, local law enforcement, and FWC biologists and Law Enforcement were instrumental in the success of the birds this season. Twenty-two Audubon stewards contributed 528 volunteer hours to chaperoning bird colonies and public outreach. Team Ocean volunteers devoted many weekend hours educating boaters about landing restrictions at the newly established Second Chance CWA. The Marco Island Police Department and FWC law enforcement were also a regular presence at the CWA colonies and played a vital role in ensuring beachgoers and boaters were following the rules. This season really illustrated the importance of multi-agency partnerships and cooperation in our collective mission to help beach nesting birds.
The wading birds of Tampa Bay managed a productive season despite the tropical weather challenges of soaking rains and damaging winds. Most of the bird nesting islands were minimally damaged; the birds held on and continued to raise their young. The Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank, which is leased from and managed in collaboration with The Mosaic Company, hosted over 7,000 pairs of nesting birds. One hundred forty-five pairs of Roseate Spoonbills nested at the Alafia Bank and we observed almost 200 fledged spoonbill chicks at one time hanging out on the shorelines! Nesting around the bay continued late into the season as staff found young Brown Pelican, Great Egret and Black-crowned Night-Heron chicks in September.
Project Colony Watch volunteers continued monitoring and protection of important inland colonies hosting Wood Storks and other wading birds. Volunteers worked to free entangled birds and protect them from the dangers of fishing tackle through public outreach and education. Audubon staff worked with partners at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Avian Research and Conservation Institute to conduct a statewide survey of the nesting Reddish Egret population to learn more about one of the most threatened birds in Florida. Survey data is being analyzed and results will be available in coming months.
In Northeast Florida, shorebird nesting was filled with its usual mixture of ups and downs. The star of the show once again was Huguenot Memorial Park, where seasonal closures to beach driving are helping beach-nesting birds enjoy incredible success. There were thousands of Royal Terns nesting among the dunes at Huguenot, fledging upwards of 2,300 chicks. Bird stewards, including members of Duval Audubon, helped beachgoers enjoy the amazing display of wildlife without jeopardizing the colony’s success.
Least Terns again nested in large numbers at two locations in St. Johns County, but neither colony was very productive. Julia’s Island fledged a handful of birds before high tides and Tropical Storm Colin combined to washover the nesting area. The colony in Summer Haven had over a hundred nests for most of the season, but only a small number of confirmed fledges by the end. Stewarding efforts at the site have greatly reduced disturbance from visitors and dogs, but a variety of predators – including a large increase in ghost crab numbers at the site – contributed to the site’s poor performance. On a positive note, Wilson’s Plover families were a frequent sight at Summer Haven with over a dozen nests and many feathered chicks reported from surveys.
THANK YOU, bird stewards, for your time and passionate commitment to Florida's precious beach babies!