by Jolie Friedrich, Park Naturalist Specialist, Huguenot Memorial Park
Bird enthusiasts know the importance of a successful breeding season, especially for vulnerable beach-nesting sea and shorebirds. The vast majority of birders coming to our beaches are respectful and careful. Unfortunately, in recent years we have noticed an uptick in birders getting too close to rare or vulnerable species, with tragic consequences. Jolie Friedrich describes her experience working during the summer of 2021 as a cautionary tale for those who love Florida’s feathered species.
Each nesting year brings new challenges for shorebird monitors and stewards, but we felt optimistic for the 2021 season. The previous year at Huguenot Memorial Park saw the first documented Least Tern colonies and the first Killdeer nest in the park known to fledge chicks. We also knew 2021 would be the first nesting year for “Y23,” an American Oystercatcher that I helped band as a chick in 2017 and that was finally old enough to breed. As with any public beach with nesting birds, there is always some amount of human disturbance. Generally, the people disturbing wildlife are mostly unaware of shorebirds and seabirds and do not realize how detrimental it can be to flush flocks of birds throughout the day or enter posted nesting areas. In the 2021 nesting season, however, most of the direct disturbance resulted from the people who specifically came to see the birds, people you expect to understand the importance of giving these species their space.
The first nest of the season was from an American Oystercatcher we banded as “W67.” In Florida, American Oystercatchers are a threatened species, so the success of every nest is important. My intern and I stewarded near the temporary nesting closure, and on most busy days there would be people who came to photograph the birds. Unfortunately, some would intentionally flush the adults from the nest in attempt to get a picture of the eggs. This nest did hatch, but both chicks died shortly after hatching - we believe the eggs overheated from exposure to excess sun and heat when parents were off the nest, leading to improper fetal development. We had to take the last chick from under the parents who were continuing to shade it, although the chick had been dead for at least a few hours.
Just inside the tip of the park’s peninsula, and well inside the area subject to our seasonal driving closure, Y23 had a much-anticipated nest. While it isn’t uncommon for the first nesting season to be unsuccessful for a bird new to parenthood, both adults were very attentive to incubating. Additionally, Black Skimmers began nesting nearby for the first time in the park in many years. They likely chose that area because of the extended closures for the Y23 nest. Like oystercatchers, Black Skimmers are listed as a threatened species in Florida.
Just a few days before the much-anticipated hatch date, three birders who are regular visitors to the park drove far past our driving closure signs and cones. When they saw Black Skimmers incubating, they excitedly went past some of the Do Not Enter signs and rope we had installed for Y23’s nest. While the women were able to get a direct count of the nesting skimmers, which is something monitors had not done because of the certainty of disturbance, they flushed the oystercatchers off their nest, which was then predated by crows. We lost the entire nest.
Shortly after this loss, Y23 and its mate made another nest. Around this time, a Sooty Tern began hanging around the Black Skimmers, and many birders who focus on listing species were anxious to see this unusual species for Duval County. Nearly every day, often for hours at a time, the oystercatchers were flushed off their nest when birders approached too closely. My intern and I would attempt to steward, but often the people hoping to see the Sooty Tern would remain for hours and refuse to leave the area. While they were outside of the posted nesting areas, they still clearly disturbed the birds. It is important for beachgoers to understand that shorebird postings are often limited by physical constraints at the site and do not represent a safe distance for observers. Because of continued disturbance, these threatened birds abandoned this nest. They did not re-nest.
The disturbance hasn’t been limited to the summer. Outside of nesting season, we continue to protect our dunes because of their fragility. Anyone who has been in the park the past few months likely took note of the severe erosion we have experienced at the tip of the park’s peninsula, which is the nesting site of our massive seabird colony. Without disturbance, dunes can often make a recovery from erosion. Foot traffic in sand dunes will damage and kill sea oats, a native grass which is essential for stabilizing dune systems. While we have extensive dune protection signage and rope, we have had recent instances of birders entering our dunes to see the current county rarity in the park – a Lapland Longspur.
The disturbance from birders has become so negatively impactful that park staff and our partners feel we cannot inform the public of rare species visits in the park. It is not any agency’s intention to “gatekeep” rare sightings, but it is the purpose of my job to protect wildlife in the park.
I want to stress that there are certainly many respectful birders who visit our site, and we are grateful for their patronage and for all they do to support birds and conservation. To those who love birds, I implore you to say something when you see people engaging in detrimental behavior and to make yourself an example to others. The culture around birding should be promoting wildlife protection and unaccepting of behaviors that threaten these imperiled species. Being respectful of wildlife may mean you miss a sighting on your checklist or miss that perfect photograph, but it may also mean the success of declining species – and that should matter most to all of us.
Give birds their space. Leave the area if you are disturbing a bird.
Keep dogs on a leash or off the beach entirely.
Walk on the beach, not the dunes.
Properly dispose of trash, which can attract predators.
Avoid driving on the beach.