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A successful shorebird nesting season ended days before Ian

two shorebirds sitting on pebbles
Kara Cook
Audubon Florida
A pair of least terns courting among some pebbles are pictured on the cover of Audubon Florida's 2022 Coastal Report, which details how last year's shorebird nesting season went rather well in part because it was over three weeks before Hurricane Ian decimated many Florida beaches.

Audubon Florida’s 2022 Coastal Report touted the success of last year’s shorebird nesting season while also fearing declines in future seasons due to climate change.

Last fall’s Hurricanes Ian and Nicole missed upsetting last year’s nesting season for Florida’s coastal bird population by mere weeks, allowing for successful breeding for the original beach-front residents.

Head shot of Audrey DeRose-Wilson
Audubon Florida
Audubon Florida's Audrey DeRose-Wilson

“We breathe a retrospective sigh of relief that the year’s hurricanes came after nesting season,” said Audrey DeRose-Wilson, Audubon Florida’s director of bird conservation. “Even as we grieve with the coastal communities and inland neighborhoods still struggling to recover.”

Audubon Florida’s 2022 Coastal Report touted the successes of last year’s shorebird nesting season throughout the state’s regions, while also voicing fears about declines in future seasons due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases releases causing myriad changes on Florida shores.

Nesting success was particularly notable in Southwest Florida last year, when least terns raised 320 chicks including 19 at Big Marco Pass — a first since 2019. Wilson’s plovers raised 41 chicks, black skimmers had 234 fledges, and a half-dozen snowy plover chicks made it through hatching and rearing until they had grown feathers and were capable of flight.

Audubon Florida also helped create nesting habitat at Cayo Costa State Park that was the site of Lee County’s only successful American oystercatcher nest in years — the spot was where Hurricane Ian made landfall four weeks after nesting season.

A small shorebird in a puddle on a beach
Gerald Herbert
An American Oystercatcher is seen on the shore of the Chandeleur Islands, home of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, is seen off the Southeastern coast of Louisiana Tuesday, April 27, 2010. A member of the species nested at Cayo Costa State Park in 2022, just narrowly missing the effects of Hurricane Ian.

The report is the result of Audubon staff and volunteers keeping track of more than 300 shoreline nesting sites along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Nearly 600 volunteers spent at least 4,700 hours combined stewarding beach sites, monitoring bird colonies, and cleaning up fishing line and litter.

Hurricane Ian proved to be one of the most destructive storms in Florida’s history, devastating both coastal and inland communities along the southwest coast. A few short weeks later, Hurricane Nicole hit northeastern Florida — a sure reminder that climate change will continue to bring stronger storms to our shores.
Audubon Florida’s 2022 Coastal Report

Hurricane, climate change fears

The avian-centered environmental group has fears that stronger hurricanes and worsening global warming will soon lead to far less successful nesting season for shoreline animals.

Hurricane Ian’s effects on Southwest Florida’s coastline may very well affect the current shorebird nesting season.

Chart shows bird hatchings
2022 Coastal Report

Concerns revolve around altered beachlines, different water levels, changes in interior lakes and ponds on barrier islands, and red tide outbreaks that were a constant fixture in the region into the early weeks of this years nesting season.

Climate change-induced trends in seasonal rainfall patterns, including stronger and more frequent storms, will continue to negatively impact wading bird nesting, the report stated.

“We will be paying special attention to hurricane-caused habitat changes in the 2023 nesting season,” DeRose-Wilson said. “As we start another nesting season here on the coasts of Florida, the sea, shore, and wading birds that depend on our coastal areas are threatened by red tide, erosion, human disturbance, and more.”

Protecting the birds

Sea and shorebirds lay their eggs right on the sand, often in small divots creating nests that can’t be seen unless right over it.

Chart shows roseate spoonbill and reddish egret hatchings
2022 Coastal Report

The adult birds will flee when people or dogs get too close. And if constantly frightened away, the parents often abandon the colony and leave their nesting chicks to fend for themselves, which rarely ends well.

Because of that, Florida Audubon and its volunteers rope off and often monitor important nesting areas, especially where threatened species are bunched up.

In Collier County, the Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area is now off-limits to boaters and will remain so through August 31. The shell island is at the south end of Cape Romano, south of Marco Island.

Second Chance won’t be the only one.

“Postings will be put up on Collier’s historically important nesting beaches, like Big Marco Critical Wildlife Area, Morgan Beach, and Dickman’s Point, in the coming weeks,” said Rochelle Streker, Audubon’s Southwest Florida shorebird program manager.

Environmental reporting for WGCUs funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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