By Cassy Fiano
It’s not just tourists that will be migrating to St. Johns County beaches this summer.
Northeast Florida lies in the center of the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration route that brings thousands of different species of birds to the area each year. And with the help of the St. Johns County Audubon, some of the threatened species will have a little help making it through nesting season, which lasts from May through July, thanks to the Shorebirds Nesting Program.
Each year, birds from as far north as Canada stop in this area before heading as far south as Venezuela. “They need areas to be able to stop, and feed and rest before they go on,” explained Jean Rolke, president of St. Johns County Audubon.
As part of a shorebird partnership known as the Florida Shorebird Alliance, volunteers from St. Johns County Audubon monitor the beaches as the nesting season progresses.
“We will also go out and help post the site where the shorebirds are nesting so that people know that they need to stay out of that area,” Rolke said.
These birds don’t make typical nests — there’s just a little scrape in the sand, and then the birds drop their eggs. And there are some imperiled species, such as the Least Tern, Wilson’s Plover, American Oyster Catcher, and Black Skimmer, that the group is worried about in particular.
Chris Farrell, vice president of the St. Johns County Audubon, explained that it would be very easy for people to miss the eggs completely.
“These birds are all cryptic, or as people think of it, camouflaged. Their eggs are sand-colored with specks in them, their chicks are sand colored with little specks in them. You can’t see them,” he said. “So people could go walk through a colony and step on some eggs or chicks.”
That doesn’t mean that people cannot or should not enjoy the beach, but simply that people need to share the beach with the nesting birds.
“Because as the nesting shorebirds’ numbers decrease, that will offset other areas of the natural web of things, the fish supply, the crustaceans — because they won’t be eating what they’re supposed to be eating,” Rolke explained.
People are encouraged to pay attention to posting sites and keep away during nesting season. Beachgoers should aim to keep at least 10 to 20 feet away from the colonies. If birds begin flushing, or rising up off the sand simultaneously, then it’s a sign that people are too close to the birds and should move further away.
And while the program has had success, there is still much further to go. “There are definitely a large number of birds that are flying and reproducing because of the actions of our volunteers,” Farrell said. “There are still a lot of threats, loss of habitats and increased predators and we don’t have the number of fledglings, new birds, that we think is sustainable for long-term health of the birds. But we definitely think we’re taking steps towards that. We’ve had success.”
Volunteers are always needed. If you’re interested in participating in the Shorebirds Nesting Program, visit either www.stjohnsaudubon.com or www.fl.audubon.org to be connected with your local program.
Photo courtesy St. Johns County Audubon
Shorebirds nest identified.