Southwest Florida has long been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation. Beautiful weather, amazing beaches and breathtaking wildlife attract thousands of visitors and new residents to our area each year.
From March through August, three species of beach-nesting birds also flock to area beaches. Nesting locations around Marco Island include parts of Keewaydin and Kice Islands and three locations designated by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission as Critical Wildlife Areas: Big Marco Pass, Caxambas Pass and Second Chance.
Least terns and black skimmers nest together in mixed colonies, while Wilson’s plovers nest nearby. The birds lay their eggs directly on shelly sand that is at a high enough elevation to avoid overwash during storms. They also require beaches with sparse vegetation, which provides just enough shade for chicks but is too small to harbor predators. Frequent disturbance and flushing of birds off nests by beachgoers or their pets expose eggs and small chicks to intense summer heat and the threat of predators. These coastal species depend on a balance of viable nesting habitat and protection from disturbance to nest successfully. Beaches that meet all these requirements are increasingly difficult to find along Florida’s coast.
Almost 40 percent of Collier County’s coastline falls within the managed area of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the past 20 years, reserve staff and partners have seasonally posted and closed portions of beach-nesting bird habitat in effort to maximize nesting success. Staff and volunteers install brightly colored string, flagging and signs to alert beach visitors of the presence of these birds, which, like their human “snowbird” counterparts, migrate thousands of miles each year from winter homes.
Since its designation as a Critical Wildlife Area in 2015, a sandbar located one-quarter mile southeast of Cape Romano — called Second Chance — has been officially closed to visitors from March through August. Each year, large signs are installed on the sandbar to clearly mark the closed area and are removed on Aug. 31 after the birds have left and boating visitors may return.
Rookery Bay Research Reserve’s Team OCEAN volunteer program provides crucial assistance in informing residents and visitors of the closure. The volunteers make daily trips to Second Chance and other nesting sites in the reserve to provide information to boaters and beach visitors about the birds and the ways humans can help protect natural resources.
Through a partnership with Audubon Florida, a full-time Audubon staff member works with reserve staff to monitor and protect these birds. They recruit and lead teams of shorebird steward volunteers who provide outreach at Southwest Florida beaches outside reserve boundaries.
Once nesting season begins, colony sites are visited weekly. The number of adult birds, nests, chicks and fledges are recorded following established statewide monitoring protocol. This data is entered into the Florida Shorebird Database and is available to researchers, managers, conservationists and permit reviewers, allowing this valuable information to help them conserve these protected species. Nesting data is used by reserve managers to identify the best nesting habitat at the beginning of each season to determine the location of potential colony sites. The data also guides the timing and placement of additional protective posting and educational signage in areas not designated as critical habitat.
In years past, as many as 3,000 least tern nests were recorded on Florida beaches (data from the Florida Shorebird database). In 2011, 600 least tern nests were recorded at Second Chance, making it the largest nesting colony in Florida that year.
While shorebird stewards and other volunteers make daily patrols to educate beach visitors about the nesting birds, everyone can do their part to share the shore with wildlife:
- Watch where you walk — be careful not to step on eggs or chicks.
- Respect posted areas and keep your distance from resting or nesting birds.
- If birds appear agitated, take flight or swoop at you, they may be trying to tell you that you’re too close to their nest. Turn around or alter your route to avoid nesting areas.
- Observe regulations pertaining to dogs – they’re prohibited on most beaches, and leash laws apply elsewhere, including at Keewaydin Island.
- Be sure to dispose of your trash properly. Place it in trash cans or take it home with you if none are available.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, established in 1978, encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters and is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rookery Bay’s mission is to provide a basis for informed stewardship of estuaries in Southwest Florida through research and education.