SWFL shoreline birds: Vulnerable to beachgoers, nursing the next generation

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Some of Florida's most adorable, cute-and-cuddly critters are roaming local beaches as the next generation of shorebirds arrives this spring.

Birds like snowy and Wilson's plovers, least terns and black skimmers are flocking to areas like the south end of Fort Myers Beach, the north tip of Bonita Beach and Tigertail Beach on Marco Island. 

"In Southwest Florida, we start preparing for their nesting in April for Wilson's plovers and snowy plovers," said Rochelle Streker, Audubon Florida's Southwest Florida shorebird manager. "Least terns have been spotted in Lee and Collier in nesting locations. Black skimmers will also start nesting in May." 

Many of the smaller species blend in well with sandy landscapes and are often difficult to detect with the human eye. Eggs are especially vulnerable because they're left practically on the open sand. 

Parents will scrape a small indention in the sand and lay the egg there, relying largely on the camouflage pattern of the egg shell to hide the young from predators. 

"Shorebirds nest in shallow scrapes in the sand and their eggs and chicks are well-camouflaged, making them vulnerable to being stepped on unless people look out for them and avoid walking though flocks of birds," said Lisa Thompson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency charged with protecting wildlife and habitat. "As a general rule, it is best to keep at least 300 feet from nesting birds and to avoid walking through flocks of birds or entering posted areas."

Least terns display mating behavior near a nesting site on the south end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, May 5, 2022.  The area just south of the Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area is a known nesting site for the terns along with Snowy plovers, Wilson's plovers and Black skimmers.

One problem arrives when unexpecting visitors walk the beach, which can lead to people stressing the parents and chicks, or worse, stepping on an egg. 

"Not keeping enough space from nesting shorebirds can cause them to flush from their breeding sites, leaving vulnerable eggs and chicks exposed to the elements and predators," Thompson said.

Snowy plover chicks find shade under a plover  warning sign at a nesting site on the south end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, May 5, 2022.  The area just south of the Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area is a known nesting site for the plovers along with Least terns, Wilson's plovers and Black skimmers. Snowy plover chicks are really small and look like cotton balls. The area is marked make beachgoer aware of the nesting birds and chicks.

Scaring off the parents can leave the eggs vulnerable to environmental conditions as well. 

"Egg temperatures can increase to lethal levels after just a few minutes of direct sun exposure," Thompson said. 

The birds defend themselves and their eggs and nests by acting injured or by being super aggressive. Even though some of the plovers are smaller than a tennis ball, they're not afraid to attack potential predators when their eggs or young are threatened. 

Wilson's plover chicks scamper on the beach on the south end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, May 5, 2022.  The area just south of the Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area is a known nesting site for the plovers along with Least terns, Wilson's plovers and Black skimmers. Wilson's plover chicks are really small and look like cotton balls. The area is marked to make beachgoers aware of the nesting birds and chicks.

"All of the birds will let you know very clearly when you approach a nesting area," Streker said. "Plovers will do broken-wing displays and call at you, leading you away from chicks and nests. If you see this, you are definitely too close to nesting and need to back up towards the shoreline."

Others go straight for your head, or leave a nasty little surprise on your shoulder.  

"For least terns and black skimmers, they will dive bomb and defecate on you when you get too close," Thompson said. "For these two species, you will see their colony long before they dive bomb you, and so it's important to give the colony space." 

A Snowy plover chick scampers while a parent watches nearby on the beach on the south end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, May 5, 2022.  The area just south of the Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area is a known nesting site for the plovers along with Least terns, Wilson's plovers and Black skimmers. Snowy plover chicks are really small and look like cotton balls. The area is marked to make beachgoers aware of the nesting birds and chicks.

Most areas that see regular shorebird nesting activity are marked with signage and roped off from the public. 

"Beachgoers should look for and respect postings and signs — including string around the colony itself that acts as a guideline to keep folks from getting too close," Streker said. "Still, sometimes you can be outside the postings and still too close, so pay attention to bird behavior. Back up the way you came and towards the shoreline." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.