shorebird stewardship

shorebird id guides

Birdwatching? Take Along These Helpful Bird ID Guides

Explore the beautiful birds of the Western Everglades and Southwestern Florida with these downloadable/printable PDF Bird ID Sheets.

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Audubon Western Everglades collaborates with Florida Audubon to educate the public and monitor the shorebirds of Collier and Lee Counties. These Shorebird Stewardship Initiatives are grassroots, biologist-led programs designed to engage and empower local citizen scientists and beach-goers. By working alongside biologists, citizens can volunteer as Shorebird Stewards to gain knowledge about local shorebirds, help educate their fellow beach-goers, and protect nesting and roosting bird life in SW Florida. 

SW Florida hosts some of the most productive nesting colonies of Least Terns and Black Skimmers in Florida. And in the winter, Collier County provides roosting habitat for the majority of the wintering Black Skimmers in the state, as well as for thousands of terns. But these shorebirds are at risk from many threats including development, human disturbance, and predators. Learn how you can help below.

Partnering with Florida Audubon to Protect Shorebirds

Photo © Jean Hall

THE THREATS TO SHOREBIRDS

Shorebirds face countless threats throughout the year. They are a widely traveled species, and depend on specific breeding and wintering sites for their survival and reproductive success. From resighting banded shorebirds, we know individual birds often return to the same places year after year, termed "migratory connectivity". 

Today, there are few remaining locations where shorebirds can successfully breed, winter, and stop to refuel on their migrations. And throughout their journeys, shorebirds face countless adversities and threats including development, fisheries collapses, predation by dogs and feral cats, harassment by beach-goers, and many others.  Here's why we do what we do:

human disturbance

"Flushing" Shorebirds

Who doesn’t enjoy a nice walk or run on the beach? The most common disturbance of shorebirds is people walking or running through roosting flocks on the beach. When people get too close to resting shorebirds, they become agitated or uncomfortable and are forced to flee or to “flush” (fly away in response to disturbance). Flushing forces birds to expend large amounts of energy to fly and return again to land.

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Photo © Jean Hall

The shorebirds of SW Florida are surprisingly tolerant of human presence. But, just like people, birds need to maintain some amount of personal space. And, when roosting on our beaches, most of our shorebirds are sleeping. Black Skimmers in particular forage at night, and sleep on the beach during the day when humans are using the space. When people flush roosting flocks, they are not only cause them to expend excess energy which they should be conserving, but we are also waking them up and disturbing their sleep cycle. Repeated flushing takes a huge toll physiologically on our shorebirds. Thankfully, there is a simple solution — walk slowly and calmly around resting flocks and give them a wide berth. If they start to shuffle, fly, or make noise, you are too close, take a few steps back.

drones

Danger Above

The main predators of shore and seabirds are birds of prey, and attacks usually come from above! Because of this, bird flocks are hyper-aware of everything flying around them and will flush at the slightest sign of danger. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, like consumer drones) mimic flying predators and cause a defensive response from shorebirds, forcing the whole flock to take flight and abandon the area.

Photo © Jean Hall

Prevention: Know Your Regs - Do Not Fly Drones Near Flocks

Not only does flushing make the birds burst into activity from rest, using precious energy, but it is also a form of harassment, or “take” of wildlife under legislature ranging from national and state law, and all the way down to local city ordinances in many places. If you are a drone operator, you are required to know and adhere to all local flying restrictions, including no-fly zones over some wildlife areas and preserves. Please steer clear of wildlife and report violators, especially if state-threatened species are being harassed to FWC Wildlife Alerts.

loose pets

Pets = Predators

No matter how well-behaved, well-fed, or friendly your pet is, it poses a threat to wildlife. Dogs and cats are predators of shorebirds, and birds will flush at even with a distant view of a dog or cat, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to the elements where they can easily die of hypothermia or heat exposure, or leaving them vulnerable to your pet or other predator to eat. Even just 5 or 10 minutes of heat exposure during the summer can begin to cook all the eggs of a disturbed colony right on the sand, effectively destroying productivity of dozens to thousands of birds

Prevention: Keep Dogs Off Beaches and Keep Cats Indoors

There are very few beaches in SW Florida that allow dogs. Dogs (and the public) are never allowed to enter posted areas of resting or breeding wildlife. And on beaches where they are allowed, dogs MUST be leashed at all times. Service animals are also not exempt from regulations regarding disturbing or harassing wildlife. Know your local regulations and which beaches allow dogs. When in doubt, leave your furry companion safe at home. If you see a dog on a county or city beach, contact local police. If you see a dog in a posted Critical Wildlife Area, call FWC Law Enforcement by dialing *FWC (*392), and take any photos or videos you can. Learn more about wildlife crime reporting by clicking here.

Feral and outdoor cats are predators of seabirds and shorebirds. Cats prey on both adults and chicks. Regardless of how much cats are fed by humans, they still kill songbirds, lizards, native rodents, snakes, Burrowing Owls, and shorebirds alike. It is estimated US cats kill 1.4 – 4 billion birds per year. By keeping cats indoors, you can help save countless lives of native wildlife, and also keep your pet safe from cars and other predators.

Photo © Jean Hall

red tide and pollution

Runoff Pollutants 

Our ocean systems are inherently tied to our coastal and upland systems. How we manage our lands impacts our oceans as well. One of the largest sources of pollutants is runoff. As it rains on the land, water drains off the landscape through sheet flow, streams, rivers, and human-made drainage structures. As this water flows, it carries with it fertilizers that were not absorbed, silt, trash, human waste, and other chemicals. If not properly treated, all of these pollutant travel through the waterway and to the ocean.

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Photo © Jean Hall

It is well known now that plastic pollution is rampant and poses a threat to ingestion by everything from microplastics in plankton, balloons in seabirds, straws in turtles, and larger pieces too in marine mammals and sharks. What we know little about though, are the causes and effects of nutrient and chemical pollutants originating from our human environment. Researchers are working to determine the causes of harmful algal blooms, like Red Tide. It is currently thought that excess nutrients from agricultural landscapes, residential lawns, and from overwhelmed human waste treatment plants are a huge contributing factor to these large algal blooms.

Prevention: Reduce Use of Fertilizers, Plastics & Chemicals

Red Tide is caused by an increase in the growth of certain dinoflagellates; microorganisms that are naturally occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae exist in a nutrient-limited system, meaning that the algae can only survive at background concentrations unless a large amount of nutrients are put into the system. With extra nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus (the two main components of fertilizer), the algae reproduces rapidly resulting in a “bloom”.

The organism naturally produces a toxin (brevetoxin), which binds to cell membranes and interferes with nerve transmissions. In the water, this toxin can be ingested by marine life, including fish, turtles, and dolphins. The toxin can also become aerosolized due to wave action.

This is what causes respiratory distress in humans on the beach during Red Tide events. During a Red Tide, people often notice foul smells, trouble breathing, dead fish, and dying birds. As sea life ingest the toxins, they build up in the body until the animal dies of paralysis, starvation, compromised respiratory system, or secondary infection from their weakened state.

Individuals Can Make A Difference

We can all help reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms. As an individual, you can reduce or stop using fertilizers, or use fertilizers only in the dry season with low phosphorus and nitrogen products. If you are a member of an HOA, express your concern about fertilizer use and talk to your neighbors. We can also all talk to our representatives about stricter water laws and fertilizer regulations for corporations. We can all also make everyday choices to help reduce plastic use, such as using reusable bottles, tupperwares, metal straws, and silicone sandwich bags.

habitat destruction

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Construction, Beach Raking

Every year, more and more of our open spaces become developed. It is estimated that 900 people move to Florida per day.  With all those people comes encroachment on our few remaining wildlife areas. Beach nesting and roosting birds are especially vulnerable as they have few places to move to once areas are destroyed. Construction and maintenance of sterile sand beaches by raking is especially detrimental.

Patronize Businesses Implementing Conservation Plans and Speak Out On Raking! 

 Nesting shorebirds need large expanses of undisturbed sand with sparse vegetation for flightless chicks to hide in and seek shelter from the elements. Beach raking uproots plants as they grow and limit cover for chicks. You can help by patronizing beach businesses implementing conservation plans, dune conservation, and which do not rake their beaches. If you live or work on a beach that is raked, you can voice your concerns and advocate for no raking.

Photo © Jean Hall

the vital work of
shorebird stewards

If you care about wildlife, you can be a Shorebird Steward. Shorebird Stewards are volunteers that engage in a variety of activities contributing to the protection and longevity of our feathered friends. We match your talents and interests to 3 core activities: Research, Monitoring, and Community Outreach.

Like many of the birds themselves, some of our volunteers are here just for the winter; others year-round. Stewards make a difference in the life of our bird population throughout the year. Here's how:

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Photo © Jean Hall

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Outreach

As Stewards, volunteers participate in community outreach activities that interact with, engage and educate the public on shorebird protection. More >

Monitoring

Monitoring helps biologists protect breeding colonies and the overall shorebird population, and Stewards play a key role. More >

Research

Shorebird Stewards help biologists chart population changes through band resightings and other valuable Research. More>

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outreach

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AWE staff biologists and volunteers conduct outreach stewardship during the winter months in Collier and Lee Counties. During the winter, shorebirds do not tend to reside in one single spot, but rather travel around where resources are abundant and disturbance is low. Despite being able to move between locations, our wintering shorebirds are still vulnerable to disturbance by people. Winter stewards help locate flocks along beaches, including Marco Island City Beach, Clam Pass Park, Bunche Beach, and Carlos Pointe. Armed with “Ask Me About the Birds” signs and shirts, stewards chat with beachgoers as they pass and reroute people trying to walk through roosting (resting) flocks. Stewards are ready to teach people about migration, current research, threats, and biology of the local wintering shorebirds. In winter of 2018-19, stewards in Collier County helped educate over a thousand people and contributed 200+ hours of service to the program!

During the summer, our volunteers have the opportunity to volunteer with one of our partner organizations, Audubon Florida! Audubon Florida administers a summer shorebird stewardship program across the state, including here in SW Florida. In summer, our shorebirds are settled into their breeding grounds along some of our beaches, including Tiger Tail Beach on Marco Island and Carlos Pointe in Fort Myers. Stewards set up spotting scopes and shade tents nearby the tern and skimmer colonies and are ready with outreach materials to teach beach-goers. Many passers-by are curious about the “posted”, or roped-off, areas, while others choose to enter it without regard for the rope or signs. Just like in the winter, stewards are on hand to teach the public about the importance of posted areas, shorebird reproduction, and the biology of the local birds. Summer stewards often have (fake) egg-finding games, coloring pages, and replica chicks or eggs for kids to interact with up close. Stewards also have the opportunity to educate those who choose to unlawfully enter those posted areas about the rules and regulations and can work with FWC Wildlife Officers and local Law Enforcement in reporting continued offenses. If you are interested in volunteering with Audubon Florida for summer stewardship, contact AWE and we will put you in contact with the summer stewardship coordinator!

monitoring

If you have been to our local beaches, you have probably seen some of our shorebird species or the roped-off, or “posted”, areas they use. It is important for biologists to know where shorebirds are congregating to breed or rest, and how many there are. Volunteer Shorebird Stewards assist local biologists from AWE and Audubon Florida in helping spot and count these flocks.

During the summer, stewards assist in estimating the number of breeding pairs of Black Skimmers, Least Terns, and Wilson’s Plovers. They also keep track of what stage their nesting activities are at (courtship, egg laying, incubation, chicks, and fledgling). Stewards are also at the forefront of reporting wildlife violations to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). By watching out for violations, stewards help protect breeding colonies from mass abandonment and destruction of eggs by beach-goers, dogs on closed beaches, and other unlawful actions.

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In the winter, volunteer stewards are a great asset to biologists in locating non-breeding flocks. These flocks are often a bit nomadic in their search for good food. Stewards report large flocks of Royal and Sandwich Terns and Black Skimmers to local biologists as they move throughout SW Florida, allowing the biologists to quickly find the birds to accurately count them. And stewards are also on the lookout for individually marked birds in the flocks as well (see the Research section below). Thanks to stewardship efforts and flock reporting, we have determined that Clam Pass in Naples hosts the most wintering Black Skimmers in the State of Florida, and we are continually working to provide more education and protection for this location!

RESEARCH

Shorebird Stewards with Audubon of the Western Everglades along with Audubon Florida biologists help contribute data to shorebird research projects within Florida and from other states too. During the summer, stewards and biologists estimate colony sizes and reproductive success to help state biologists track population changes. Stewards also keep a sharp eye out for individually marked birds with leg bands on. By “resighting” these banded birds, biologists can track an individual throughout its life to see how many chicks it produces, where it goes on migration, or to see how long it lives. 

 During the winter, band resighting is extremely important; banded birds from the other Gulf states and the Atlantic coast migrate to SW Florida for the winter and bring their bands with them. Each winter, biologists, and stewards in SW Florida report thousands of band resights to biologists from Florida all the way up to Canada and across to the Dakotas. This research is providing government agencies, conservation practitioners, and land managers with vital information about the movement and survival of shorebirds throughout the Atlantic Flyway. In the winter of 2018-19, stewards and biologists in Collier County provided 450 banded bird resights back to biologists all over the US and Canada! To learn more about why biologists band birds click here, or if you have found a banded bird report it to a local banded bird Facebook page or directly to the Federal Bird Banding Lab.

LEARN ABOUT SHOREBIRDS

Throughout the year hundreds of thousands of shorebirds use Florida’s beaches, whether it's for breeding, roosting in the winter, stopping during migration, or all year long. Take a closer look at some of our most prevalent shorebirds below.

Explore Shorebird
Diversity

the original snowbirds

Shorebirds are highly migratory species. The birds that winter here in Florida migrate from all over the US and Canada to enjoy the Florida winter, just like many of our beach-goers. As birds migrate, they tend to use similar paths, or “flyways”, through the landscape. The Atlantic Flyway funnels millions of birds from the Appalachian and Atlantic regions down into the Caribbean and South America, and back north again. Florida’s peninsula concentrates these migrants, resulting in huge amounts of bird life!

Most sandpipers breed in the arctic circle on the tundra, including Sanderlings and the federally endangered Red Knot. American White Pelicans breed in the northern Great Plains, and federally endangered Piping Plovers join us from the Missouri River, the Great Lakes, and up and down the Atlantic Coast. Conservation of birds like these is an inter-state and international effort. While these migrants call our shores home, we all need to be good stewards and help spread awareness of their journeys and struggles.

learn about shorebirds

"Black Skimmers and Least Terns are listed as Threatened species in Florida."

Both Black Skimmers and Least Terns and their nest are protected by law.

The presence of these birds does NOT prohibit beach recreation, but certain activities may be limited to outside posted areas or outside of pf breeding season.

Beach nesting birds are easily disturbed by people, pets, and aerial vehicles.

To help protect nesting sites, biologists rope off colonies of breeding birds.

This fencing keeps beach-goers and their recreation equipment away from vulnerable eggs and checks. These areas often have Stewards to help educate curious beach-goers.

If you see a Steward, stop by and they can show you what the birds are doing.

terns and skimmers

Black Skimmers

Least Tern

Black Skimmer & Least Tern

In SW Florida we have two colonial breeding shorebird species, both of which are state Threatened in Florida. Black Skimmers and Least Terns are actually state threatened or endangered in almost every state that they breed in. Both of these birds are also colonial nesters, breeding by the hundreds to thousands of individuals on large sand beaches. We are not sure what is causing their population decline, but it could be human disturbance on either the wintering or breeding grounds, habitat loss, environmental toxins (like red tide), or fisheries collapse somewhere in their range. Researchers across their ranges are currently studying a variety of these factors.

The Least Tern is the smallest species of tern in North America. This small bird is about the size of a songbird, but with a horizontal posture, sharp yellow bill, black crown, and a black eye stripe. Least Terns plunge into the water to catch small bait fish, like Bay Anchovies, and can often be seen presenting fish to their mate during their annual courtship. Least Terns winter in the Caribbean and Latin America. During the spring, they migrate north to Florida and other coastal states to their breeding colonies.

Royal Tern

Sandwich Tern

Royal and Sandwich Terns

These two tern species are sometimes confused with gulls. Though closely related, terns are a sister group to the gulls and have a horizontal posture, long pointed wings, sharp bills, and black crests.

The Royal Tern is the larger of the two and is easily identified by its bright orange bill. Sandwich Terns are slightly smaller and have a black bill tipped in light yellow. 

All terns are plunge divers. They fly well above the water’s surface to spot a school of fish and dive into the water to catch small bait fish. Most of the Royal and Sandwich Terns on our beaches hatched on sandy barrier islands of North and South Carolina or Virginia. After the breeding season, these terns fly down the coasts to roost on our beaches for the winter. Both Royal and Sandwich Terns can live well into their 20s, and some live to be more than 30 years old! We often see the same individuals returning to the seem wintering and breeding beaches every year. 

Photo © Jean Hall

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