Bird advocates to those who snap selfies with shorebirds: Please give our feathered friends a break

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press
Marbled godwits take flight after being disturbed by a jogger and his unleashed dog at Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

The scenes may seem postcard-perfect – a beach jogger scattering a flock of shorebirds, or kids tossing sandwich scraps to swooping gulls – but as far as the birds are concerned? Not so much.

No matter how well-intentioned the humans, these kinds of interactions spell trouble from the creatures’ perspective.

When birds gather on beaches, they’re likely resting, nesting or feeding, because migration means a huge expenditure of resources. On long treks, birds can lose up to half of their body weight. Consider the threatened red knot, which flies up to 18,000 miles each year from Tierra del Fuego to nest on the Arctic tundra, before flying back, with some stopping in Florida and other places along the way, Audubon of the Western Everglades' Brad Cornell says. 

People jump-scaring them into the air wastes their stored energy.

"Lots of media pictures portray kids running through a big flock to make them fly, but after the flocks do that 30 or more times each day, they are exhausted and can lose weight and end up less vigorous for their migration to breed next spring and summer," Cornell said.

Wood stork nesting season in Florida a bust after a less-than-optimal wet winter

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation shorebird biologist Audrey Albrecht has been experiencing this first-hand, after witnessing people repeatedly flush birds she was trying to count earlier this week. (Fun fact: On Tuesday, Albrecht spotted a sandwich tern that was banded in 2000 in North Carolina as a chick, and is now 20 years old.)

“People often let their kids or dogs run through flocks of resting shorebirds and seabirds on the beach because they think it is fun," Albrecht said. "Adults often do this as well so they can capture selfies or videos for social media. They do not realize the negative effects they have on the birds when they do these things."

Given that these feathered travelers arrive on our shores exhausted and hungry, “Every time they are flushed they are expending precious energy that they need to survive,” she said. Birds like the royal terns and sandwich terns don't fly quite as far as the arctic nesting shorebirds like red knots and sanderlings, but have still come quite a distance.

Observant beachgoers may notice young terns still leaning forward, loudly begging for fish from their parents, she said, "but when they are repeatedly forced to fly, the parents are unable to feed themselves or their young."

Marbled godwits stand at attention at Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday, September 29, 2020. The birds, along with hundreds of other shorebirds that included, gulls, terns, skimmers, pelicans and other sand pipers were congregated near the dredge that is dredging the pass. Seconds after this photo was taken, tbe birds were disturbed by a jogger and his unleashed dog. Some shorebirds fly long distances as they migrate, disturbing them can cause them to waste much needed energy that they use to migrate.

While they’re here trying to rest up and get fat for their next breeding season, such disturbances can become a serious threat, Cornell said. 

That’s not to say he and other avian advocates condone feeding them to help them gain weight. People food can make wild birds sick or turn them into pesky beggars. Maybe you’ve been mobbed by gulls?  It’s not some Hitchcockian nightmare – it just means someone has likely fed them before.

Feeding wild animals can cause them to lose their natural fear of humans and pets, which can lead to problems when the critters come looking for food again. Animals that learn to rely on people for handouts may never learn to find food on their own. Plus, predators like crows, gulls, rats, raccoons are all attracted by humans and their discards, Cornell said.

So what's a responsible nature lover to do, given the region's abundance of wildlife-watching opportunities?

A good rule of thumb is "look, but don't touch." After all, Cornell said, our winged winter visitors are one of the things that make Southwest Florida special.

For example, Audubon Western Everglades’ data show the majority of the eastern U.S. population of threatened black skimmers winter at Clam Pass in Collier County.

"There have been flocks up to 4,000 at Clam Pass many days during winter season," Cornell wrote in an email, "which of course is when humans like to show up on Florida beaches in big numbers, too. The message is: 'Share the shore' with these creatures – they are actually a huge amenity. There are very few places in the nation that harbor this kind of wildlife phenomenon and it is right here in Southwest Florida."

Making their protection more pressing, an unknown malady struck Marco Island's black skimmer colony this summer, sickening or killing an unusual number of them.

It's one element of a disturbing global trend of shorebird populations declining, Albrecht said.

“We should all do our part to help protect them," she said. "The beach is their home, and when we are visiting, we should treat it with respect.” 

Audubon Shorebird Stewards

After BP’s Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill destroyed nest sites on northern Gulf beaches, Audubon organized a biologist-led, trained volunteer shorebird stewardship programs for many of the same species that nest in this region – black skimmers, least terns, snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers, and American oystercatchers. "We wanted to protect their nesting efforts in Southwest Florida to offset some of the northern Gulf losses," said Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate.

Working in cooperation with state agencies and wildlife nonprofits, Audubon Florida is the lead for Collier and Lee counties where the bulk of the summer nesting is. In the winter, Audubon Western Everglades (Collier's independently incorporated Audubon chapter) has created a new kind of stewardship, hiring a biologist from September through March to monitor and protect large migratory winter flocks of coastal birds, especially at Clam Pass and on Marco Island, where the bulk of winter birds congregate for resting and foraging. 

In Lee County, Audubon of Southwest Florida hires a winter shorebird stewardship coordinator to similarly monitor winter flocks at Bunche Beach and Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area.

Learn more: https://www.audubonswfl.org/shorebird-stewardship

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