FWC reminds the public: Nesting waterbirds need room to breed

Black skimmer sitting on chicks. FWC photo by Carol Rizkalla.

Give waterbirds room to breed this nesting season. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Audubon Florida are reminding boaters and beachgoers to watch out for nesting birds.

“It is very important to limit the disturbance of nesting waterbirds,” said FWC biologist Nancy Douglass. “When these birds are forced to leave their nests, their eggs and chicks are left vulnerable to heat and predators. By respectfully sharing our beaches and waterways with these birds, people can help ensure their survival.”

Shorebirds and seabirds build shallow nests out of sand and shells on beaches in spring and summer, and eggs and chicks are difficult to see. Shorebird nests, eggs and chicks are well-camouflaged and can easily be missed and even stepped on unless people know to look out for them. The snowy plover, least tern, black skimmer, American oystercatcher and Wilson’s plover are several of Florida’s beach-nesting bird species facing conservation challenges.

Wading birds, such as herons and egrets, and pelicans are also nesting now. They typically nest in mangroves and on tree islands around the state. Nesting waterbirds can be easily disturbed if people approach too closely. Such disturbance can cause birds to abandon their nesting sites, exposing eggs and chicks to predators, sun exposure and other harm.

“With last year’s double-whammy of red tide and Hurricane Michael, coastal-nesting birds could be facing a challenging 2019,” said Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida. “Beachgoers and boaters can do their part by respecting posted areas—giving the birds some breeding room.”

The FWC has established Critical Wildlife Areas to protect congregations of one or more species of wildlife from human disturbance during critical life activities such as nesting, feeding or migration.

People can help keep nesting birds safe by keeping their distance from CWAs and other areas where birds are nesting or raising young. In addition to observing the marked-off areas around CWAs, people can also help by following a few simple steps while enjoying the beach this season:

  • Keep your distance from birds, on the beach or on the water. If birds become agitated or leave their nests, you are too close. A general rule is to stay at least 300 feet from a nest. Birds calling out loudly and dive-bombing are signals for you to back off.
  • Respect posted areas. Avoid entering any area marked with signs for nesting birds and use designated walkways when possible.
  • Never intentionally force birds to fly or run. This causes them to use energy needed for nesting, and eggs and chicks may be left vulnerable to the sun’s heat or predators. Teach children not to chase shorebirds and seabirds and kindly ask fellow beachgoers to do the same. Shorebirds and seabirds outside of posted areas may be feeding or resting and need to do so without disturbance.
  • It is best to not take pets to the beach, but if you do, keep them leashed and avoid shorebird and seabird nesting areas. Pets are not permitted on many beaches, including state parks, so always check and be respectful of these rules when preparing for a day at the beach.
  • Keep the beach clean and do not feed wildlife. Food scraps attract predators, such as raccoons and crows, which can prey on shorebird eggs and chicks. Litter on beaches can entangle birds and other wildlife.
  • Spread the word. If you see people disturbing nesting birds, gently let them know how their actions may hurt the birds’ survival. If they continue to disturb nesting birds, report it to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone or by texting Tip@MyFWC.com. You may also report nests that are not posted to our Wildlife Alert Program.

For more information, go to MyFWC.com/Shorebirds and download the “Share the Beach with Beach-Nesting Birds” brochure. Or go to the Florida Shorebird Alliance website at FLShorebirdAlliance.org to learn more about how to participate in shorebird and seabird conservation efforts.

For more information about Florida’s CWAs, visit MyFWC.com/CWA.

Interested in doing more to protect nesting coastal birds? Email flconservation@audubon.org for opportunities to chaperone vulnerable baby birds with Audubon at a beach near you or visit FL.Audubon.org and scroll over the “Conservation” tab at the top, then click on “Coastal Conservation” and “Coastal Bird Stewardship.”