Coastal Conservation

A Season in the Life of a Bird Biologist: Kylie Wilson Discusses Sea and Shorebird Breeding on Lido Key

From hurricanes to fireworks, banded chicks to moving colonies, we sat down with Kylie to learn more about her experience as a bird biologist.

Q. What is your role at Audubon?

As a bird steward for Audubon Florida, I spend hundreds of hours every spring and summer on offshore keys and coastal beaches, monitoring and protecting vulnerable sea and shorebirds.

Q. Why was the nesting season on Lido Key especially exciting this year?

During my June survey of Lido Key, I felt equally shocked and excited when I came across Least Terns nesting on South Lido Beach. Shocked because the terns had not nested at South Lido before; in fact, there hadn’t been nesting at South Lido since 2013. Moreover, I loved seeing the Least Terns trying to nest again - since they abandoned their original site on North Lido back in April. (Though North Lido has hosted a successful colony of Least Terns in previous years, in 2021 crows ate all their eggs in the very first nesting week).

Q. Why move the mile and a half down to South Lido and why in the middle of the nesting season?

Based on my experience, a nearby, large beach renourishment project just completed and this new habitat must have looked especially attractive to the terns. The group showed up at South Lido in mid-June with over fifty fledged chicks, so to me this meant they were successful elsewhere in the first half of the nesting season. June is typically the time that colonies try to renest so I concluded that was the case with this group. At first I only counted ten nests but, after roping off the area and providing space for the terns to nest without disturbances, that number quickly jumped to over 60 nests!

Q. Why is this good news for the Least Terns?

The Least Terns at South Lido showed serious resiliency. They survived a hectic July 4th weekend with repeated disturbances when beach visitors set off personal fireworks near the nesting area. Just a few days later, Hurricane Elsa hit. The most worrisome part: the nests were due to hatch on the day Elsa was predicted to make landfall.

I went out to check on the birds after the storm had passed and found that, not only were there basically no nests lost, but also the first chicks did hatch! Right on schedule.

Q. Do you worry about predators?

The nests survived and chicks began hatching in quick succession after the storm, but my concern for the chicks was far from over. The little chicks are easy prey. From land-based predators like ghost crabs and raccoons to avian predators like crows and gulls (all of which are present at South Lido) there were numerous threats that I looked out for. However, the chicks seemed to evade attention from any predators. I hypothesize that because this beach has not hosted nesting birds for many years, the chicks simply did not register on the predator’s radar. Either way, I was thrilled to have over 70 chicks hatch from this colony.

Q. What other methods do you use to monitor the colony?

Bird bands!

Dr. Elizabeth Forys at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL had been banding Least Terns from rooftop colonies in Pinellas since 2009. This year, she aimed to expand that banding to ground-nesting colonies in the greater Tampa Bay area - including the South Lido colony.

Audubon Florida staff member Kara Cook and I assisted in banding seven chicks during one banding session and then seven chicks during a follow up banding two weeks later. These chicks were banded with three colored plastic bands and one metal band, two bands on each lower leg. The bands are arranged in a unique combination, allowing each individual to be identified. Band resight data is an important tool to help biologists understand more about a species movements and survival.

Least Terns are completely migratory, heading to South America from their summer breeding grounds. Hopefully these little ones will make the trip and maybe we will even see them next year!

Q. How can we help the birds?

Give the birds their space, and don’t walk too close to posted areas.

Dispose of trash properly so you don’t accidentally attract predators.

Attend municipal fireworks shows instead of using personal fireworks.

Keep your dog at home or on a short leash.

If you see an Audubon steward or volunteer on the beach, ask us about the birds! We love sharing information. Report any banded birds you see! Band resights of Least Terns can be submitted to the USGS Banding Bird Laboratory (BBL) or on the Florida Banded Bird Resighting Facebook group.

How you can help, right now