It’s spring in the Florida Panhandle, and that means it’s nesting season for many species of shorebirds and seabirds.
Franklin County contains some of the most significant nesting areas in the Panhandle, including the old St. George Island bridge causeway and “Bird Island” dredge spoil island, both managed by the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. From April 1-August 31, both areas are closed to all human and animal traffic.
The old causeway is conferred the special designation of being a “Critical Wildlife Area” due to the high number of threatened and endangered birds that nest here and marine patrol will enforce this designation. Least terns, gull-billed terns, sandwich terns, Caspian terns, royal terns, black skimmers, American oystercatchers, and laughing gulls nest on the causeway and all species but the laughing gull are protected by state or federal law.
In the past decade these birds have laid more than 3000 nests per year in this area. Brown pelicans and American oystercatchers nest on Bird Island and are also both protected species. The brown pelican colony on Bird Island has grown in size in recent years and last year 700 nests were laid by the birds.
Bird nests and colonies are very susceptible to human disturbance. Even if you aren’t physically harming a nest, a nearby presence can cause damage. If parents are scared and fly off of their nests, eggs and chicks are vulnerable to harm from species such as laughing gulls and ants. At their young age, eggs and chicks can also be overexposed to the hot summer sun and suffer from dehydration and death.
This is why areas that are posted with bird signs leave a wide buffer around nesting areas. If solitary nesters are disturbed repeatedly, in addition to predation and exposure threats, the adults may abandon a nest and any eggs in it. These eggs will not hatch without the parents’ help. If you are near a bird nesting area and observe parents flushing off the nest, please back off until you are far enough away that the parents settle back down on their nests, and respect bird signs in posted areas.
Many bird species have lost nesting habitat due to human development on our beaches. For this reason it is very important that we give these birds a chance to nest undisturbed in their remaining nesting areas. In addition to these areas managed by ANERR, Franklin County contains many additional important nesting areas including Flagg Island, Lanark Reef, parts of Dog Island and the St. George State Park, and more. Please respect all areas posted with bird signs and areas where birds are nesting.
ANERR works in partnership with many other agencies and volunteers who monitor and protect our birds. For more information about our local and state shorebirds, please call ANERR at 670-7700 or visit the Florida Shorebird Alliance partnership website at www.flshorebirdalliance.org.
Megan Lamb works for NOAA’s Environmental Cooperative Science Center and is based at the Apalachicola NERR in Eastpoint.