In recent years, Memorial Day weekends in Florida were consistently hot and balmy – driving millions to the beach and barbeques. Holiday weekends also drive extra Audubon staff and volunteers to the beach, where they steward beach-nesting birds and protect them from disturbance. But this year, subtropical storm Alberto put a damper on Gulf Coast beach plans for people and beach-nesting birds alike with its heavy rains and winds in the heart of nesting season.
After the storm and when it was safe, surveys began immediately to understand the storm’s impact on Florida’s rare and imperiled beach-nesting birds. Unfortunately, the intense rains and winds overwashed and destroyed many important Gulf Coast beach nesting sites. In some places, there were few or no surviving chicks or eggs. Thankfully, Florida’s Atlantic Coast nesting birds were unaffected by Alberto. See Audubon Florida’s full report on Alberto’s impact to Gulf Coast nesting sites below.
People are essential to ensuring the remainder of the nesting season is a success. Here are three simple things you can do:
- Check out these tips to share the shores with birds,
- Volunteer to steward beach-nesting birds in your area by emailing FLConservation@audubon.org, and
- Support Audubon Florida’s coastal program.
While the impacts along the Gulf Coast are disheartening, Audubon staff remain hopeful for the remainder of the nesting season. “When I talk with our stewarding staff, volunteers, and even beach-goers, I remind them of this message: ‘You are what hope looks like to a bird,’” said Dr. Marianne Korosy, Audubon Florida’s director of bird conservation. “This year is no different. If this year is a good year for beach-nesting birds, it will be directly because of the stewardship and dedication of everyday people working to protect Florida’s iconic coastal birds.”
Alberto's Impacts to Key Nesting Sites on Florida’s Gulf Coast
Overview: Alberto resulted in substantial losses of Least Tern nests and early Black Skimmer nests in Collier County. Some Wilson’s Plover chicks survived, and the majority of late-nesting Black Skimmers had not laid eggs. In Lee County, storm tides opened new connections between the Gulf and the lagoon inside Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area – a boon to nesting shorebirds and seabirds that need food for their flightless chicks. Least Terns and plovers sustained losses at Little Estero Island, but the majority of nests and chicks survived.
At Keewaydin Island, Alberto’s high tides overwashed 180 Least Tern nests that were within a day or two of hatching, and at least 10 feet of the beach disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. To the south in Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), storm tides caused heavy beach erosion and washed out 65 Black Skimmer nests- leaving only 14 surviving nests in the storm’s wake. Thankfully, the majority of the 450 pairs of Black Skimmers had not laid eggs when the storm arrived.
Caxambas Pass CWA, an island barely above water south of Marco Island, lost all 40 active Least Tern nests. The island was reposted with signs a few days after the storm when 10 new Least Tern nests were found. Far offshore to the southwest, severe wave erosion removed about 30 percent of the suitable nesting area on Second Chance CWA’s two sandbars. Two pairs of Wilson’s Plovers lost their eggs, but miraculously, two other pairs each had two tiny chicks survive the storm.
In Lee County, Audubon partners with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to monitor and steward beach-nesting birds. During Alberto’s passage, sections of the Little Estero CWA and Carlos Pointe on south Fort Myers Beach overwashed. The storm opened three cuts- connecting the Gulf to the lagoon along the eastern edge of the CWA. At least one of the cuts remains open, providing fresh Gulf water and a renewed prey base for the beach-nesting birds and their flightless young. About one-third of the 230 Least Tern nests and two Snowy Plover nests were lost during the storm at Carlos Pointe, just to the south of the Little Estero CWA. Inside the CWA, three Wilson’s Plovers nests were lost but amazingly, at least 11 Wilson’s Plover chicks survived. Black Skimmers were just beginning to nest on a higher spot at Carlos Pointe, and no losses occurred.
Greater Tampa Bay Region
Overview: Hillsborough and Sarasota Bay’s major bird rookeries survived Alberto’s rain and wind with no damage evident to tree-nesting wading birds. Amazingly, American Oystercatcher chicks hatched – and survived – during the storm’s passage. In Sarasota and Pinellas Counties, the nesting shorebirds fared well through the holiday weekend except for Least Tern colonies on Three Rooker Island and Longboat Key and early Black Skimmer nests at St. Pete Beach. Some Least Tern colonies on the 25+ active rooftops flooded from Alberto’s heavy rains with likely nest loss. Surveys during the next month at these 100+ sites will help determine the extent of loss and renesting.
Audubon biologists found no damage to mangroves or tree-nesting wading birds in Hillsborough Bay (Spoil Islands 2D and 3D, Alafia Bank CWA, and Fantasy Island), Roberts Bay and other Sarasota Bay colonies. Colony Watch volunteers, who survey inland rookery sites hosting Wood Storks and other wading birds, reported no damage. Active Black-necked Stilt and American Oystercatcher nests on 2D and 3D survived Alberto’s wind and rain intact along with three tiny, downy oystercatcher chicks that hatched during the storm!
Black Skimmers at St. Pete Beach had just begun nesting, and the 12 active nests were blown out or covered by sand from Alberto’s winds. Black Skimmer colonies at Indian Shores and Clearwater Beach had not begun nesting.
In Sarasota County, active nesting was underway at Lido and Longboat Keys. On Lido Key, the Black Skimmers (incubating 200 nests and tending 25 chicks) braved the storm without any nest or chick loss from wind, rain, or storm tides. Longboat Key did not fare as well. Overwash into the Least Tern colony washed out half of the 14 nests, but 19 of 21 chicks survived. Volunteers did an excellent job checking the colony and adjusting postings as needed. Both Snowy Plover nests did well, and one of them hatched the day after the holiday weekend!
Three Rooker Island's Least Tern colony overwashed and lost all nests and chicks that hatched before the storm. No losses were detected among nests of Black Skimmers, Laughing Gulls, and Royal, Sandwich, and Caspian terns which are all expected to hatch chicks during the second week of June.
Overview: Low, sandy beaches overwashed with heavy nest losses in the eastern Panhandle where onshore winds reached a maximum on Memorial Day as Alberto made landfall just west of Panama City. Hardest-hit beach nesting areas were low-lying Phipps Preserve CWA, Lanark Reef CWA, Flag Island CWA, and Cape San Blas. To the west of the storm’s center, offshore winds resulted in relatively minor losses to nesting Least Terns. Alberto’s wind and rain had no observed impacts at any of the 18 active rooftop-nesting sites in the Panhandle.
Franklin County beach-nesting birds suffered significant losses as Alberto’s winds pushed high tides even higher on Memorial Day just before the storm made landfall. At Phipps Preserve CWA, all active nests (four Wilson’s Plover nests and one American Oystercatcher nest) were lost to overwash, but one plover’s chicks survived the storm. At Audubon-owned Lanark Reef CWA, the only active oystercatcher nest and chick brood were lost to overwash. Brown Pelicans lost 128 active nests but no chicks, Laughing Gulls lost four nests, Black Skimmers lost 19 nests, and Gull-billed Terns lost seven nests. Large amounts of wrack (seaweed) washed ashore on Lanark Reef, protecting the shoreline from major erosion.
On the two islands comprising Flag Island CWA that are closed to boat landings and onsite nest surveys, 263 of 1,300 Royal Terns remained after Alberto passed with a large number of nests overwashed. At least three American Oystercatcher nests were lost with significant erosion observed on both of these low-lying islands.
An unknown number of Royal Tern and Brown Pelican nests were lost to wind and waves at the old St. George Island Causeway, which is closed to boat landings and onsite nest surveys. At least one American Oystercatcher nest survived the storm and chicks hatched afterward.
Cape San Blas beach, in Gulf County, saw heavy erosion from high surf and overwash with all of the six Least Tern nests lost. One Wilson’s Plover nest was lost, one nest survived, and one chick that hatched before the storm survived.
On Tyndall Air Force Base’s shorelines, which also carry a CWA designation, one nest of 19 active Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers was lost to blowing sand during the storm but little beach erosion occurred. Six plover chick broods were located after the storm as compared to 15 plover chick broods recorded before the storm passed. The only two Least Tern nests overwashed.
On Dog Island, one American Oystercatcher nest and one Wilson’s Plover nest were lost to overwash but one oystercatcher nest survived the storm. An active Snowy Plover nest on Little St. George Island survived the storm but nesting beaches and shell flats suffered extensive erosion damage.
In Santa Rosa County, 26 Least Tern nests were lost at two sites on Navarre Beach out of the 105 nests recorded before the storm’s passage. No nest or chick losses were observed in Escambia County.
Want to learn more? Check out Audubon Florida's report on the 2017 coastal bird nesting season. Click here to download your free copy of Perseverance: Birds and Stewards Weather Record Storms (2017 Coastal Bird Conservation Results).