LEE COUNTY — Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), at the southern end of Fort Myers Beach, is one of the few state-owned wildlife areas in Lee County that provides nesting habitat for endangered shorebirds and sea turtles. On April 7, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), staff from Lee County and the town of Fort Myers Beach and volunteers will be identifying, flagging and posting nesting areas typically located in dry dune areas above the high-tide mark.
Posted nesting areas are off limits to beachgoers and their pets between the time of posting and Aug. 31, when young birds leave their nests. However, the water’s edge is accessible to beachgoers by walking around posted areas or using marked thoroughfares between posted areas.
Posting is necessary because imperiled shorebirds that nest on Florida’s barrier islands have a tough existence. Shorebirds and sea turtles compete with natural predators, land developers and outdoor enthusiasts for narrow strips of sand - with mixed results.
Human activity causes the greatest number of problems for beach-nesting birds that often get nervous around recreational activities such as beach volleyball and kite-surfing. The family pet romping after a windblown Frisbee also can create problems.
Frightened birds will sometimes flee their nests, leaving their chicks or eggs vulnerable to a variety of hazards that include predation and dehydration. Dogs are particularly disruptive to the birds, because they resemble natural predators such as raccoons and foxes.
Once adult birds are frightened off the nest, even for a short time, it exposes young chicks to the ravages of the summer sun. Without parent birds providing shade, it only takes a few minutes for temperatures in the nest to rise above 100 degrees, resulting in death for the chicks. Young chicks and eggs also are a favorite target of crows and gulls when parents are not immediately available to challenge hungry predators.
“It’s not so much that people don’t care; it’s that nests are very difficult to detect. The nests are simple, shallow depressions in the sand, and eggs are well-camouflaged,” said Nancy Douglass, regional nongame wildlife biologist for the FWC.
The process of nesting generally starts in April, when beach-nesting birds stake out suitable sites, followed by sea turtle nesting in May. Professional wildlife biologists and a cadre of volunteers mobilize to post areas, gather data, inform the public and monitor progress of wildlife offspring.
"Shorebirds, marine turtles and their nests and eggs enjoy protection under state and federal law,” Douglass said. “However, it is the public’s sense of stewardship for the resource that’s the real key to protecting future generations of beach-nesting wildlife.”
The FWC and its partners try to contact residents adjacent to the affected beachfront. Most residents and visitors support protective measures and take responsibility for keeping a watchful eye on nesting colonies.
A public workshop for property owners and seasonal residents about wildlife and habitats found on Fort Myers Beach is scheduled for April 15. The Fort Myers Beach Holiday Inn will host the event from 1 to 4 p.m. The workshop if free, but space is limited. RSVP to Lois Poff at 239-765-0202, ext. 139 or by e-mail at Lois@FortMyersBeachFL.gov.
Summer on Florida’s beaches is a time of renewal for many of Florida’s imperiled wildlife species. Tucked away among the dunes and shells of the Gulf Coast, least terns, skimmers, plovers, sea turtles and many other native species set about the age-old task of ensuring the survival of the next generation.
“We’re asking those who use our state’s beaches to avoid nesting areas where colonies of shorebirds are tending their eggs or young chicks. We’re not asking people to stop kite-flying or enjoying the beach, we’re just asking beachgoers to avoid a handful of closed areas where there are nesting birds,” Douglass said.
If you would like more information about Florida’s shorebirds, go to the "Living with Wildlife" area under MyFWC.com/wildlife/, and download the "Co-existing with Florida's beach-nesting birds" brochure.