Volunteers Help American Oystercatchers in the Tolomato River

American Oystercatchers lay their eggs in hollows on bare sand or shell bars, called “rakes”, raising their chicks right by the water’s edge.  This keeps the chicks close to food sources and mom and dad while the parents are foraging, but also makes eggs and chicks vulnerable to drowning if waves or tides over-wash their nest sites.  Ideally, adults choose sites less prone to over-wash, but with extensive habitat loss, waves caused by boat wakes, storm surges and sea level rise, safe sites are harder and harder to come by.

Over-wash is a persistent cause of nest failure in Florida.  To help reduce the likelihood of over-wash for one oyster rake in the Tolomato River north of St. Augustine, the Northeast Florida Aquatic Preserves undertook an ambitious project in late February with support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Audubon Florida and students from Bethune-Cookman University and Santa Fe College.  The goal was to buffer an oyster rake from passing boat wakes with 4,500 pounds of bagged recycled oyster shell, hoping to give this season’s oystercatcher chicks a better shot at survival.

Andrea Small, Aquatics Preserve Manager, led the adventure at 6:45am from the Vilano boat ramp.  The project was tide-dependent and required four boats to ferry the 150 thirty-pound bags of shell from the shell-packing area to the nest rake.  Low tide was at 1:00pm, so installation needed to be completed before then otherwise the boats, and volunteers, could be stranded until the tide returned.

The weather the week prior had blue skies, sun and 80-degree temperatures, but the morning of the project was clear, windy and near freezing.  Even with suboptimal temperatures, everyone was eager to work.  All volunteers arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to tackle the challenge.  Everyone was provided with waders, gloves and life vests, loaded onto the boats and dropped off on the rake.  The boats made their way up-river to the packing area, were loaded with the bagged shell and then returned to the rake for the volunteers to unload.  Shortly after 9:00am, the first bags of shell arrived to the rake.  Volunteers formed a hand-off line and the boats were quickly unloaded.  The bags were stacked in three layers along three points of the river side of the rake and secured in place with rebar to prevent shifting from the on-coming waves.  The volunteers could see almost immediately that the bagged shell was diminishing the wave action on the rake!

By noon, all the bags were in place and low tide was coming quickly.  Everyone was loaded back on the boats and returned to the boat ramp.  Even through the wind and cold and wet feet, everyone was pleased at being able to participate in some small way for the conservation of the American Oystercatcher.  This and other oyster rake sites along the Tolomato River will be monitored by FWC and Aquatics Preserve staff and other volunteer bird stewards during nesting season in hopes of reporting successful nests and fledged chicks.

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