(PNJ.com) - Protecting mating and nesting coastal birds has taken on an urgency along Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key as tens of thousands of visitors hit the beaches this week for the Memorial Day holiday.
Both humans and birds are competing on the same dunes and flat stretches of sand, which can prove disastrous for the skimmer, snowy plover and American oyster catcher and their tiny cotton-ball-sized chicks.
"One of the goals here is to reach out to the community to help us protect nesting sites and spread the word," said Bonnie Samuelsen, Audubon Florida project manager for coastal bird stewardship, while checking on a black skimmer and least tern nesting site near Casino Beach on Fort Pickens Road on Monday.
The nesting site is one of many vulnerable to foot and vehicle traffic.
Almost on cue, while she and two other Audubon biologists showed visitors the area, a woman pulled up in her compact car behind them and politely asked them to leave the birds alone.
The biologists chuckled. Samuelsen walked over and thanked the passerby for watching out for the birds, and explained that's what she was doing, too.
"Yes! People care," said Samuelsen's colleague, Caroline Stahala, Panhandle shorebird program manager. "That's exactly what we look for."
The woman are heading up teams of volunteers and staff and partnering with state and federal parks, such as Gulf Islands National Seashore, to fan out on beaches this week and through the end of nesting season in September to protect threatened and endangered migratory nesting birds.
They're posting monitors at nesting sites and educating the public about why speed limits are reduced through nesting grounds and why dunes and portions of beaches are roped off.
The goal is to mobilize a community of bird stewards.
And they're also recruiting more volunteers to babysit nests and educate beachgoers about these special visitors.
"I've been on the beach for many years," Samuelsen said. "When we ask people to do simple measures ... play ball and fly kites someplace else and slow down through the National Seashore, and keep dogs leashed, most people don't mind making a simple change in their behavior so greater measures don't have to be implemented."
To be sure, the Santa Rosa Island nesting situation is on the radar screen of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency governing policies on endangered and threatened species.
On June 4, the agency's regional director for the migratory bird program in Atlanta and field staff from Panama City will be on the island evaluating the park's measures for protecting the shorebirds.
"They are deeply concerned. We're losing far too many birds to road kills," said Dan Brown, superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where many of the birds nest.
So far this year, 88 nests have been recorded on the seashore. So far, officials have been struck or crushed by speeding vehicles.
June's meeting could result in pressure to impose even tougher measures to protect the birds.
Audubon Florida has asked the seashore to install 20 more speed humps through the park, in addition to the one on the main Fort Pickens park road and three on J. Earle Bowden Way, which runs through the Santa Rosa Area.
Such measures could impact how quickly emergency vehicles can get in out of the parks, not to mention irritate visitors.
To prevent this, Brown, like Audubon, is urging the public to do its part by staying away from marked and roped off nesting sites; heeding the 20 mph speed limit; and carefully watching the roadways for the nearly imperceptible baby chicks that actually look like cotton balls and freeze in place when vehicles approach.
For the long-term, the seashore is looking into installing entrance stations on J. Earle Bowden Way, a 7-mile stretch of road between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, where despite all of the measures to slow down traffic, vehicles speed through the park killing many birds.
The stations would be open during nesting season and every driver would be required to stop and be briefed on why they must drive slower through the park during nesting season. No fees will be charged. And a traffic calming circle could be installed near Opal Beach as an added measure. None of these would be installed until after the seashore conducts an environmental impact study and collects public input, Brown said.
In the meantime, he's hopeful the public will slow down.
It's critical because the seashore is home to about 50 pairs of the last 200 reproducing pairs of snowy plovers in the state.
Last year, more than 150 adult and baby chicks — plovers, least terns and other nesting birds — were hit or run over by vehicles traveling through the seashore's Fort Pickens and Santa Rosa areas
"We simply cannot afford to lose these numbers of birds," Brown said. "We need to find a way to give wildlife chance to live and survive."
Cycle of predation
Vehicles are not the only problem. It's unclear how many chicks and eggs are lost to predation.
When people or dogs, and even helicopters, venture too near nesting sites, the parents fly up, or flush, and put themselves between their eggs or chicks and what they perceive as a threat from a predator.
"That's when the real predators — laughing gulls, crows and ghost crabs — swoop in and eat the eggs and chicks," Samuelsen said. "Nesting birds will dive bomb you, and when they're away from the nest, the heat from the sun will fry the eggs."
Anytime someone sees the bird flush or dive bomb them, that's a sign their too close to a nest and they need to back away.
Oftentimes beachgoers don't notice the birds or their nests in small indentations in the sand.
The large black skimmers with their orange streak on their beaks are easy to spot nesting in the sand. But their eggs and chicks and other nesting shorebirds blend into the sand and shells on the beach, Stahala explained.
"We tend to think of birds nesting in trees or have a cavity they go into," Stahala said. "These birds nest on the ground and lay several eggs, and you don't see it. They don't build anything. They construct small indentations in the ground. That's it."
Why should we care?
Many of the birds migrate here to nests on the same soft, white sugar white sands that attracts droves of tourists. Least terns travel from South America. Just like the sea turtles that nests here, they are unique features of area, the biologists explained.
Avid birders travel from far away to see them and mark them off in the bird books.
With their numbers dwindling, however, many of these birds may not be around for future generations to enjoy, Samuelsen said.
"We want to protect them for the future generations to enjoy, and some people would say we have a moral responsibility as humans to protect them."
Tips for protecting nesting shorebirds
• Respect posted areas and roped areas, even if you don't see birds inside them. Birds, eggs and nests are well-camouflaged with the beach environment, and disturbance by people can cause the abandonment of an entire colony.
• Give colony islands a wide berth, at least 300 feet, and when fishing, be sure not to leave any equipment behind. Always dispose of fishing line and tackle appropriately.
• Avoid disturbing groups of birds. If birds take flight or appear agitated, you're too close.
• Beach-nesting birds sometimes nest outside of posted areas. If you notice birds circling noisily over your head, you may be near a nesting colony. Leave quietly and enjoy the colony from a distance.
• Refrain from allowing dogs or cats to roam freely on beaches during the nesting season.
• If you must walk your dog on beaches, always keep them on a leash and away from the birds. Even on a leash, dogs are perceived as predators by nesting birds, sometimes causing adults to flush at even greater distances than when people are around.
• Do not bury or leave trash, picnic leftovers, charcoal or fish scraps on the beach. They attract predators of chicks and eggs, such as fish crows, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and laughing gulls.
• Leave the fireworks at home. Impromptu fireworks on beaches and waterways can have catastrophic effects for vulnerable chicks and eggs.
• Adhere to the posted 15-20 mph reduced speed zones through nesting grounds. Fines for violating the speed limits through the National Seashore are from $75 up to $300. Speeding 30 mph over the speed limit results in a mandatory appearance before a judge who will decide the fine
• Report violations against shorebirds or other wildlife to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Want to volunteer?
Audubon of Florida is recruiting volunteers to help protect nesting shorebird sites on Escambia and Santa Rosa county beaches.
If you would be willing to hang out with cute chicks at the beach for an afternoon or evening, contact Bonnie Samuelsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.