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Stewards help protect nesting shorebirds from threats

With nesting season in full effect, the Sarasota shorebird steward coordinator explains how volunteers can protect the vulnerable birds.

A colony of black skimmers on Lido Beach.
A colony of black skimmers on Lido Beach.
Photo by Lou Newman
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On Florida’s beaches, sea turtles often steal the spotlight. But nesting shorebirds share a similar nesting season and can be more finicky nesters. 

Shorebird breeding season — Feb. 15 through Sept. 1 — is a critical time for these birds to find safe places to lay eggs. And for most nesting shorebirds, struggles come daily. Crows, raccoons, humans and dogs all can disturb nesting shorebirds, whether intentionally or not. 

If the shorebirds do find a safe place to lay eggs, they do so on the open sand — no burying, no constructed nest. More danger. 

Sarasota Shorebird Steward Coordinator for Audubon Florida Emily Briner runs the steward program in which she enlists a team of volunteer shorebird stewards to lend a hand, preventing disturbances and educating beachgoers when necessary. 

Shorebird struggles

The shorebird nesting season is starting to pick up, which means busy days for Briner. Her day-to-day is determined by the birds, but usually involves mornings spent on the beach observing the area's various nesting colonies. 

On the beaches of Sarasota County, there are two primary nesting shorebird species: least terns and black skimmers. 

“It has been a mixed bag,” Briner said. “Our black skimmers are doing great.”

Black skimmers are listed as threatened in Florida but don’t currently have a federal status. Their large red and black bill aids in catching a meal. The lower part of the bill is longer, which they use to skim across the water and catch fish — a characteristic that gives them their name. 

Briner was happy to report that she found black skimmer chicks on the beach at North Lido. 

Black skimmer chicks have started to appear on Lido Beach.
Photo by Lou Newman

The species lays about 3-5 eggs per nest, which are incubated by both parents for 23-25 days, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

The North Lido colony had eight chicks when Briner checked on May 29. 

Briner also recently celebrated another success: least tern nests on North Longboat. Still, there was work to do to protect these shorebirds. 

Least terns are also listed as threatened by Florida, and are “extremely susceptible to nest disturbance,” according to the FWC. 

“Our least terns, on the other hand, have had a bit harder of a time,” Briner said. “Predation has really been a struggle for them.” 

Predation often comes in the form of other wildlife, namely crows. Crows and species of gulls tend to attack nesting shorebirds. The crows got to the least tern colony on South Lido. 

“They really weren’t able to settle. The fish crows were just relentless,” Briner said.

That caused the colony to move to Siesta Key, the first time in eight years that least terns tried nesting on Siesta. 

But the crows got to them there, too. What started as about 35-40 nests dwindled to about six, according to Briner. 

As of May 29, there were also four least tern nests on South Lido and five on North Longboat Key. 

According to Briner, least terns tried settling on Longboat last year as well, but that didn’t work out well. 

“Maybe this year we’ll have some least tern chicks on Longboat,” she said.

Human helpers

Human activities can also cause the birds to “flush,” or fly away from nests. Whether it’s humans walking too close to nests or dogs running around, human-caused flushing is a common issue for these nesting birds. 

“People getting too close to the nesting area will absolutely cause the birds to flush and become uncomfortable,” Briner said. “Just 15 minutes off of their eggs can cause some serious damage to the eggs.”

But, some people are doing what they can to protect these nesting shorebirds. 

Briner said the effort is entirely a partnership between people at the city and county level, to the police departments and municipalities. 

“Without building connections within the community, this job would be significantly harder,” she said.

For example, Briner recently worked with Longboat Key’s Public Works Department to put up perch deterrents on the beach near the nesting least terns. That will hopefully help the gull and fish crow predation issue, she said. 

Everyday beachgoers can also do their part by being mindful of the shorebirds and keeping a safe distance, even if the birds aren’t within a posted nesting area. Walking slowly and carefully around the birds decreases the chances of them flushing, or flying away. 

“Regardless of being inside or outside of the posted area, it’s very important that everyone gives them a little room to cool off and not be so scared,” Briner said. 

A pair of least terns.
Photo by Lou Newman

Having a child run through the birds for a vacation picture isn’t the best idea for the birds, according to Briner. 

“So many people think it’s really cool to post a video either walking through birds that are flushing, or running through birds that are kind of flying up in the air at the water line,” Briner said. “Unfortunately, that’s rather detrimental to our birds that are cooling off.” 

Dogs on the beach are also an issue that Briner encounters frequently. That’s where help from local law enforcement can play a big role. 

Dogs, or humans, might not even realize there’s a nest nearby unless it's in a posted area. 

“People don’t often realize that these are beach-nesting birds,” Briner said. “Everyone thinks of birds nesting in trees. That’s not true for many bird species.” 

Shorebirds like least terns and black skimmers lay eggs on the open sand, without burying them or constructing a nest. The eggs also often blend in with the sand, making them difficult to spot. 

Luckily, Briner manages a team of volunteer bird stewards who look out for the nesting shorebirds and educate beachgoers. 

Shorebird stewards operate in three-hour shifts, with an emphasis on evenings and weekends. Typically, the evening shift is from 5 p.m. to sunset. 

Briner said the stewards do sometimes help to protect nests from disturbances, but the focus is on education. 

“It’s mostly about education,” Briner said. “They’re going up and they’re educating people and the public about Florida’s imperiled beach-nesting bird species.”

The stewards, she said, play a key role in the process. 

“There’s all kinds of signs out there, which is great,” Briner said. “But to be able to talk to a person and say, ‘hey, let me tell you about this cool thing,’ their passion comes through. And that’s what happens with most of our volunteers, they get very passionate about these birds and their stories.” 

Audubon Florida is always looking for volunteer shorebird stewards. Briner will set up volunteers with the proper training and equipment to enjoy a couple of hours on the beach while educating people about the shorebirds. All that’s needed to sign up is interest and passion, Briner said. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the steward program is organized through Audubon Florida.



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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