Annual shorebird counts contribute valuable data for state and national protected area management.
For the second straight year, staff with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR) partnered with the US Fish & Wildlife Service for the annual Winter Shorebird Survey in early February.
Coordinated statewide by the Florida Shorebird Alliance (FSA), this annual waterbird survey along sections of Florida’s 8,000-mile shoreline is done in an effort to document long-term trends or changes in winter bird population sizes and distribution, and identify key wintering sites for shorebirds and sea birds.
Following FSA protocols, Beverly Anderson and Cheryl Metzger, in the RBNERR research department, recorded over 6,000 individual birds representing 40 species. The team covered roughly 12 miles of RBNERR beaches and mudflats including Key (Keewaydin) Island and the area south of Marco Island from Cape Romano to Goodland. The targeted species were seabirds (pelicans, cormorant, gulls and terns) and shorebirds (plovers, willet, sanderling, dunlin and others), however raptors (osprey, eagle, hawks and falcons) and wading birds (herons, egrets, and ibis) were also counted.
The survey was conducted at high tide, which is when birds are resting and often concentrated on areas of exposed sand or mud. Morgan Bay (on Cape Romano), only accessible by boat, is one location within the survey area that consistently serves as a key resting and feeding site for shorebirds.
“Minimal public use and an available resting area at high tide makes Morgan Bay very attractive to birds,” said Anderson, who also participated in the survey last year. “We counted over 2,500 shorebirds within Morgan Bay” she said, adding that the birds there were densely packed in a very small space.
Notable sightings in the count area included 19 ospreys, two peregrine falcons, two piping plovers (a federal and state Threatened species), 600 white pelicans and an above-average count of more than 1,300 brown pelicans, many of which were concentrated and feeding along the shoreline on huge schools of bay anchovies (also known as glass minnows). The bay anchovy is one of the most abundant and widespread bait fishes in the Gulf Region, and is a very important component of the food web of many sport and commercial fishes as well as sea birds.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas in cooperation with NOAA.
Renee Wilson is Research Translator for Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve