Florida’s beach-nesting shorebirds and seabirds always face extraordinary odds, but Audubon’s hard-working coastal biologists and volunteers were thrilled in 2019 to see more breeding success than the previous year. In particular, Northeast Florida and the Florida Panhandle saw impressive results.
This summer, Little Talbot Island in Northeast Florida experienced one of the most successful nesting seasons in recent memory. Thanks to the dedication of the Timucuan Shorebird Partnership, which includes staff and volunteers from Audubon Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Florida Park Service, and the City of Jacksonville, five species of beach-nesting birds successfully raised chicks on Little Talbot Island: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, Gull-billed Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and Black Skimmers.
To achieve this, Audubon collaborated with the FWC in 2016 to both renew and enlarge the Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) designation for beach-nesting bird habitat in Nassau Sound. Fortunately, the new CWA designation brought additional resources and focus to the nesting site. The most impactful change in 2019 was the addition of seven large “No Landing” signs installed around the breeding area to let boaters know they could not land and disembark near the nesting birds.
Additionally, Audubon Florida and the FWC hired seasonal staff to steward this remote nesting area, where it can be difficult to recruit help from volunteers.
The cumulative result of these partnership efforts has been a significant increase in nesting success by several species. Least Terns managed to fledge a few chicks from the site last year, but had more than 100 nests in 2019, with dozens of chicks fledging. 2019’s big surprise? The return of sizable numbers of nesting Black Skimmers and Gull-billed Terns. Skimmers made a whopping 30 nests, and at least 25 chicks survived. Gull-billed Terns had over 20 nests and many successful offspring. Four pairs of American Oystercatchers also produced young, with Wilson’s Plovers rounding out the list of successful nesters at this site, bringing the total number of species to five.
2019 brought even more good news, this time from the Florida Panhandle. Last year, Hurricane Michael flattened and rearranged coastal dunes, buried or swept away vegetation, and breached many beaches that have historically served as nest sites to the diminutive Snowy Plover. Even though nesting season was over, these birds that normally remain near their homes year-round were scarce in the months following the storm.
According to the FWC, “despite the population setbacks, the hurricane-altered landscape provided conditions ideal to successfully hatch and fledge young during the 2019 breeding season.” Reduced sea oats and other vegetation cleared the way for better nesting grounds, while predator populations declined. Lower crowd densities on the beaches further reduced disturbance, and the number of Snowy Plover fledglings increased by fivefold between 2018 and 2019.
Overall, the 2019 nesting season was better than last year, and Snowy Plovers remained the big winners in the central Florida Panhandle this summer for numbers of fledged chicks. Wilson’s Plovers also proved successful in the Panhandle with five chicks fledging at Phipps Preserve CWA and 11 chicks fledging at Crooked Island West. Around the state, both Least Terns and Black Skimmers did well.
Unfortunately, in locations where Audubon Florida monitored nesting American Oystercatchers, few chicks fledged. According to FWC biologists, breeding success was high in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and on oyster rakes within river channels in Northeast Florida.