The largest Least Tern colony in Northeast Florida – and one of the top 5 statewide, is nesting near the southern end of Anastasia State Park in St. Johns County with another smaller colony to the north, also inside the state park. The birds are nesting in an area where 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwashed vegetation creating a broad, sandy platform that first attracted Least Terns to the park. Hurricane Irma also deposited fresh sand on the site in September 2017 and a beach renourishment project underway has added additional sand to the same area. Since May, the southern site has fledged 96 juveniles and as of June 25th there were 158 active nests in the two colonies combined. Even bigger news is that the Black Skimmers have returned to nest with the terns for a second year – with 7 active nests this year compared to 3 nests last year!
As with all beach-nesting birds in Florida, disturbance and predation challenge nesting success and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff installed game cameras to determine the cause of partial colony nesting failures earlier this season. In May, two beachgoers walked through the posted area and in early June, a coyote was captured on camera at the south colony. Beginning in mid-June, beach access opened near the south colony after renourishment was completed and dog-walking beachgoers began appearing on the beach near the tern colony despite the park’s policy prohibiting pets on park beaches.
The 14 dedicated Audubon bird stewards at the colonies, coordinated by Anchor Steward, Jean Rolke, can't stop coyotes from entering a colony but they routinely talk with dog-walking beach visitors about how quickly eggs and tiny chicks die when frightened beach-nesting birds take flight as a leashed dog approaches. These amazing bird stewards are on duty weekends and holidays - including the upcoming Independence Day week - to help reduce disturbances and educate people about birds that nest directly on Florida's beautiful beaches.
The good news: the birds seem to be winning with continued nesting and juveniles fledging despite all the challenges. If you would like to join the stewardship program and help protect nests and chicks with public outreach at beautiful Anastasia State Park, email Jean Rolke, Audubon’s St. Johns County Stewardship Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org