Coastal Conservation

A Season in the Life of a Shorebird Biologist: Training New Stewards

By Ricky Cassell, Panhandle Stewardship Coordinator for Audubon Florida.

Sunshine starts to peek over the horizon and a cool November breeze blows through the golden sea oats on either side of the road. As I drive over the causeway, I look across the sound at Navarre Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Though the last of the Black Skimmers and Least Terns departed in September, I can still easily imagine the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the nesting season.

My focus now shifts from nesting sites on the causeway and surrounding beaches to training volunteers to become shorebird stewards. Stewards play an important role in educating the public and telling people stories about the birds. From February 15 – August 31, stewards educate beachgoers who visit the same white sandy beaches where the birds nest. Holiday weekends are the busiest, and stewards provide a critical buffer between unknowing visitors and the vulnerable sea and shorebirds.

Training starts in the fall, and I arrive at the Navarre Beach Marine Park to meet and walk the beach with Iris Hamilton, one of Audubon Florida’s newest volunteers. She recently moved to the area and wanted to get involved in the local community. An article in the local paper piqued her interest in volunteering with us, and I’m thrilled to have her on the coastal team.

We walk the mudflats that emerge as the tide falls along the bay shore. These mudflats are an all-you-can-eat buffet for shorebird species, and we spot an endangered Piping Plover! As we watch, we notice it shakes its foot rapidly back and forth in the wet sand, a foraging technique known as foot trembling. Unseen to us, tiny invertebrates under the surface begin to move from the disturbance. The Piping Plover senses exactly where it is and plucks the crustacean right out of the sand.

We watch the plover in awe for a couple minutes - a real treat since coming across a Piping Plover is not common. They, like all shorebirds, face a myriad of threats that have reduced their population numbers over the years.

This particular bird has bands. We write the band combination from left leg to right leg, going from top of the leg to the bottom as Service//Black Black: Yellow Flag(10F)//Yellow Light Blue or more simply, S//KK:YF(10F)//Yb. After a bit of research, we learned that this tiny bird has spent its winters at Navarre Beach Marine Park at least since 2012, when it was banded as an adult in North Dakota.

Shorebirds and seabirds play an important role in the marine ecosystem, cycling nutrients between land and sea and serving as environmental indicators. Conserving wintering locations is important so the birds can forage and rest. Without these areas, migratory shorebirds and seabirds will have an even more challenging time returning to their summer breeding grounds; these challenges have significant impacts on their success as a species.

We finish our walk on the beach talking about ways we can helps birds at our local sites: respecting leash laws, giving birds space, cleaning up food and garbage, and educating others. The more people who are aware, appreciative, and looking out for the birds, the better it is for their overall chance of survival.

Are you looking to make a difference? There are a variety of ways you can volunteer with Audubon Florida’s coastal seabird and shorebird program! Contact if you are interested in being one of our talented and valuable Panhandle volunteers.

How you can help, right now