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Vulnerable Birds are Thriving

Posted on Dec 23, 2019 in Birds , Wildlife Conservation , Habitat , January–February 2020

The snowy plover (top right) and the black skimmer (above) are thriving as a result of the changing landscape after the 2019 hurricane season. Photo by Vivek Khanzode and Trudy Walden

By Caroline Stahala, Ph.D. Shorebird Program Manager, Audubon Florida

During a stroll down our Panhandle beaches, keen observers can spot pale, little birds running against the waves. Among those feathered creatures are some rare species that depend on our shorelines to nest and raise their young each year.

When you ask any school kid where birds raise their babies, they will tell you: a little basket somewhere in a bush or tree. For many species, this is exactly what bird nests looks like. However, some sea and shorebirds skip building nests and lay their eggs directly in a sandy cup they scrape on the beach. As unusual as this sounds, it is a useful strategy in the absence of people on the beach. The eggs, and the adults that sit on the eggs, blend into the sand and are almost completely camouflaged.

Snowy plovers, black skimmers, and Wilson’s plovers all nest on Panhandle beaches, and all three are listed as threatened by the State of Florida. Why threatened? They are losing their historic nesting grounds both to coastal development and crowded beaches. To protect these vulnerable species, Audubon Florida and our volunteers monitor the beaches. When nesting occurs, we immediately mark the area with posts and signs to let visitors and locals know that the birds are raising their families there.

The year 2018 proved to be a terrible nesting year for skimmers and plovers. Tropical storms and hurricanes swamped their nests and chicks, reducing overall nesting success. By contrast, this year the birds were able to take advantage of beaches altered by Hurricane Michael to fledge more chicks than Audubon and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have recorded in over 10 years.

The devastation wreaked by the hurricane has permanently scarred the coastal communities, cotton growers, and timber producers in the region, but the snowy plover nesting season may prove to be one of the only silver linings. Reshaped and vegetation-cleared dunes hosted more nests than in the past, and with fewer people on the beach, more snowy plovers could successfully fledge young: across six Panhandle sites 69 snowy chicks left their nests to continue their journey into adulthood, a fivefold increase between 2018 and 2019. After hurricanes swept through the region in 2004 and 2005, researchers noted similar successful breeding seasons.

Snowy plovers can be found on various beaches throughout Florida’s western Panhandle, including Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, and near the Destin jetties. In Walton County they are now only recorded along a few of the coastal state park beaches. If you visit Grayton Beach or Topsail Hill State Parks during the summer, you may see sections of the beach along the dune posted with signs and string marking bird nesting areas. These parks act as refuges for the remaining nesting least terns and snowy plovers.

Those interested in helping Audubon protect nesting birds on the beach or encouraging nesting coastal birds on beach front property, or for more information, contact us at flconservation@audubon.org.