Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area a natural oasis

Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area sign greets beachwalkers and boaters at Sand Dollar Spit.

Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area sign greets beachwalkers and boaters at Sand Dollar Spit.

By Charlette Roman

The Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area, commonly referred to as Sand Dollar or Tigertail, depending on whom you ask, hosts a great diversity of winter visitors – the feathered variety!

Each fall thousands of shorebirds make their annual migration from distant nesting grounds on the tundra of Canada and Alaska – above the Arctic Circle – to spend the winter months at warmer spots as far away as southern South America. In the spring they repeat the long, arduous journey in reverse. Much like our human snowbirds!

Initially a sand bar, Sand Dollar in 1988 was designated Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and is protected by law. The sandy beaches, dunes, tidal pools, and mudflats provide valuable nesting, resting and feeding grounds for over 60 species of migratory and resident coastal birds.

Part of the Gulf of Mexico dynamic shoal system where water currents continually move and reshape sand bars

Reddish Egret displays its active feeding behavior as it dashes after prey. Photos by Charlette Roman

Reddish Egret displays its active feeding behavior as it dashes after prey. Photos by Charlette Roman

and beaches, Sand Dollar grew from a small sand bar into an island. Over several years, the island continued to receive more sand deposits, growing larger and eventually connecting to Marco. Technically now a spit rather than an island, Sand Dollar is continuously redesigned by the natural forces of wind and water. This unique natural resource has become wider in spots as vegetation has taken hold.

In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated Sand Dollar as critical habitat for the Piping Plover, a species which is considered Endangered or Threatened throughout both its breeding and wintering ranges. “Every year we have recorded sightings of federally threatened banded Piping Plovers from the Great Lakes area,” said Ricardo Zambrano, Regional Biologist, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

En route to places further south, exhausted migrants stop at Sand Dollar spit and the adjacent tidal lagoon at Tigertail Beach for both food and a brief rest before continuing their travels. Posted sections during

Short-billed Dowitcher in non-breeding plummage forages for food on the mudflat in the Critical Wildlife Area.

Short-billed Dowitcher in non-breeding plummage forages for food on the mudflat in the Critical Wildlife Area.

the winter months provide undisturbed areas for birds to rest and eat during this stop on the migration superhighway. These shorebirds use stored fat as energy and need to consume substancial amounts of food to refuel for the rest of their journey. Tigertail lagoon is teaming with life and provides a smorgasbord of delights such as crabs, fish, clams and other sea life. For many birds, Marco is their final stop for the winter, their “resort” destination, so to speak!

The Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area, on the northernmost corner of Marco Island, is a special place for all who enjoy long stretches of natural pristine coastline. It’s an important destination for birders and photographers and offers tourists easy access to the “Real Florida,” which is good for revenue and jobs, said Zambrano.

Actively supporting the protection of important bird habitats like the Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area saves these areas for the enjoyment of future generations. You can

Great Blue Heron stands in wait for food.

Great Blue Heron stands in wait for food.

help by practicing positive birding etiquette while enjoying the beach:

  • Avoid closed posted areas and encourage others to do the same.
  • Enjoy the birds but please keep your distance – never intentionally flush or force birds to fly – repeated disturbances cause birds to waste valuable energy reserves. Great ways to observe from a distance are with binoculars, scopes and telephoto camera lenses.
  • Report suspected wildlife violators to the Wildlife Alert Reward Program by calling 1-800-404-3922. Cell phone users can call *FWC or #FWC depending on service provider. For more information on this program, visit www.myFWC.com

Charlette Roman has been a full-time Marco Island resident since 2002. Certified as a Florida Master Naturalist in both Coastal Systems and Freshwater Wetlands, she leads field trips to Tigertail and speaks to groups about Marco’s unique environment. She is certified in the Department of Education’s Flying Wild program, and served as president of the Friends of Tigertail Beach, Inc. 2004-2007. In 2009, she received the prestigious Collier County Audubon Society Fellowship.

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