Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Collier Shorebird Stewards: Protecting one chick at a time

Black Skimmers with a chick, Sand Dollar Island.

Black Skimmers with a chick, Sand Dollar Island.

To date, we have been so fortunate in avoiding oil and tar balls on our beautiful beaches. Marco Island and its environs is incredibly important nursery ground for many different coastal species. There is an amazing amount of wildlife on our beach that is thriving and reproducing in this window of oil-less opportunity. Abundant bait and game fish are in the near-shore waters; invertebrates, such as our favorite shells’ egg casings (Horse Conchs, Queen Conchs, Sand Dollars, etcetera) litter the beach; the Turtle Lady’s posted sea turtle nests can be seen (thirty-four to date) near the dunes; and the three posted shorebird nesting areas of Sand Dollar Island are crowded with Black Skimmer and Least Tern chicks. We all hope this renewal of life will go on to thrive in the Gulf of Mexico in the coming months.

It is always important to conserve and protect the productivity of the turtles, fish, birds, shells, but this year, with the looming impact of oil and the perishing wildlife we are witnessing in the north Gulf, every hatchling, chick and fingerling seems more critical to save. Every year from March through August, Wilson’s Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Least Terns and Black Skimmers nest on beaches in southern Collier County, especially the federally designated Critical Wildlife Area, Sand Dollar Island. The entire spit of sand is protected, but there are three main areas posted for the beach-nesting shorebirds. Not all beach-goers are familiar with nesting birds, and many may not even be aware of them. This can result in accidental disturbance to the colonies, which decreases the birds’ chances of nesting success. A few months ago, recognizing our  mutual priority of protection and education for the public, Lindsay Addison, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s TEAM Ocean Coordinator, Dr. Brad Cornell, Audubon’s policy associate, and Nancy Richie, Environmental Specialist for the City of Marco Island, launched the Collier Shorebird Stewards program for the Marco Island beach areas at Tigertail and Sand Dollar Island. This is a partnership formed through the Collier County Shorebird Alliance.

Since the creation of this program, thirty-six (36) volunteer stewards have stepped up and are on the beach each weekend in

Aerial images copyright 2009. Courtesy of the Collier County Property Appraiser. Colony locations, shapes, and sizes approximate - created by Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Aerial images copyright 2009. Courtesy of the Collier County Property Appraiser. Colony locations, shapes, and sizes approximate – created by Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

shifts talking to beach goers about the beach-nesting shorebirds, providing viewing opportunities of the chicks and behaviors, and monitoring the shorebirds’ productivity. From all different backgrounds, the volunteers are from all over Collier County and even one from the east coast of Florida. They set up shop on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays at the lagoon side, where the hardiest beach walkers cross the lagoon at Tigertail Beach and out on the Gulf beach near the most southern nesting area. Tony Smith, owner and operator of the Tigertail Café and beach vendor activities at Tigertail Beach, graciously supplied storage of equipment and is ever-ready to help with set up. The Steward volunteers help out by spending time at colonies, with information and a scope. They show beach goers the birds, explain how they can help, and answer questions.

The most important educational message is to explain why the birds should not be agitated or scared off their nests. The beach is a hostile environment for nesting. Least Terns and Black Skimmers simply make a small scratch in the sand for their nest. Laying one or two eggs, the female will sit on the eggs to regulate the temperature of the egg(s). The female is not warming the egg, but rather protecting the egg from the scorching heat and from the many predators in the area. If she is agitated off the egg, even for a few minutes, the egg could literally poach in the sun and heat; or a ghost crab could scurry in and take the egg quickly. Keeping a distance and respecting the posting areas, realizing that some nests may be on the outer edges and outside the posted area, is vital to the productivity of the beach-nesting shorebirds.

Feedback from visitors and locals has been very positive. Newcomers and visitors—particularly families—to the island, who hike north on their own wildlife adventures, are typically thrilled and surprised to learn so much about the shorebirds and view the chicks. In early mornings, walkers, who seem to be locals, keep their distance, walking as close to the water as possible. There have been several pairs of visiting photographers that found that, if

Least Tern Chick. Courtesy of Lindsay Addison, TEAM Ocean.

Least Tern Chick. Courtesy of Lindsay Addison, TEAM Ocean.

they give the birds and chicks some distance, they get the perfect shot of the unique, natural behaviors, not just agitated and diving birds!  Runners plugged into their iPods have been the toughest to get the message out to—they seem to be “in the zone” with running and will take the high ground of the beach to keep their feet dry. The areas posted for nesting are in the narrowest areas of Sand Dollar, so the high ground is the nesting area, with chicks hatching and moving toward the tidal zone to feed. Chicks are hard to spot, very small, the color of the sand for camouflage from predators; they hide in debris scattered along the beach and could and have been easily crushed accidentally. We have put signage at the most southern posted nesting area, so this may bring attention to the care that is needed to protect the chicks from heavy and unaware foot traffic. Here are a few tips for simple beach etiquette around beach-nesting shorebirds:

  • Respect the postings and give the birds plenty of space when you see them, even when they’re just standing on the beach.
  • Resting is important for birds. If you walk around them, they won’t waste energy flying away.
  • Do not leave food or trash behind and do not feed wildlife. Crows and gulls eat other birds’ eggs and chicks. Leaving food attracts more crows and gulls, which harm nesting terns, skimmers, and plovers.
  • If you see a chick, please leave it alone. The chicks of all our beach-nesting species leave the nest just 2-3 days after they hatch. Adults watch over them and feed them, so you do not need to try to catch it to “return it to the nest.”

It is an important summer for coastal species protection. The Collier Shorebird Stewards are out there helping one chick at a time.  If you get out to Sand Dollar Island, stop by, ask questions or look through the scope.

For more information or if you would like to become a Shorebird Steward, please view the website: colliershorebirds.wordpress.com or contact Nancy Richie at 239-389-5003 or nrichie@cityofmarcoisland.com.

Nancy Richie is a long time Island resident and Marine Biologist.

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