The oyster bars, shell hash and sandy beaches of Franklin County provide habitat where several kinds of rare shorebirds build nests each year. With a stout red bill, red eye ring, and black and white coloration, the American oystercatcher is one of our most striking shorebirds.
The Apalachicola area and eastern Panhandle host a significant portion of the state’s breeding population for these special birds. Lanark Reef is a designated site of Global Importance, in part, due to the breeding and wintering populations of these birds.
Unfortunately for oystercatchers and other shorebirds, their nesting places are also frequented by beachcombers, fishermen and kayakers who arrive in March and April, just when the birds are attempting to build shallow scrapes where they can lay eggs and incubate their young.
A friend and I recently accompanied Bonnie Samuelsen, who is the shorebird project coordinator for Audubon Florida in the eastern Panhandle, to repair a posted nesting area on an oyster bar off St. George Island.
“From a bird’s perspective, people are perceived threats and dogs appear as four-legged predators like coyotes, raccoons, and foxes,” she said. “Oystercatchers are easily disturbed and flush off their nests. This leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to weather conditions. such as hot Florida sun or windblown sand covering their eggs. It also leaves the eggs and chicks vulnerable to opportunistic predators like gulls, crows and ghost crabs.
“We find if we can educate the public and minimize human disturbances, we get chicks to fledge!” Samuelsen said.
Audubon Florida partners with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, The Nature Conservancy, Florida Park System and others in a special working group to monitor the American oystercatcher and other rare shorebirds.
It is estimated there are less than 400 breeding pair of this state-threatened species and that is one of the reasons that warning signs are being posted near nesting sites in Dr. Julian Bruce St. George Island State Park, on oyster bars, islands and the causeway left from the 1965 bridge to the island.
American oystercatchers feed almost exclusively on bivalves, mollusks, crustaceans, worms and other marine invertebrates at low tide when the intertidal zone is most exposed. They spot bivalves that have opened their valves to feed and quickly nip the adductor muscle, preventing the shell from closing and allowing the bird to feed on the soft parts inside. At river mouths, oystercatchers will feed on mussels, and will sometimes carry mussels to the shore and hammer them open with their stout red beaks. Unlike its landlubber cousins, oystercatcher feeding time is cued more by daily tidal rhythms than daylight rhythms.
Loss of habitat, unknowing human disturbances, increases in overwash and predators attracted to human activity all contribute to the challenges shorebirds and seabirds are facing in their quest for survival. The best way to help their population recover is to stay far away from posted oyster bars and dune areas.
Oystercatchers disturbance behaviors aren’t always obvious. Sometimes they slink away from their nests when humans are at some distance, sometimes display mock feeding, sleeping or brooding behavior, and sometimes call out a series of “wheeps” in alarm. It is best to give birds and posted areas a wide berth. There are plenty of good places to fish and kayak around Apalachicola Bay.
Volunteers are needed to help monitor nesting areas, and readers and naturalists can get involved in shorebird conservation by visiting Audubon’s Coastal Bird Stewardship web page fl.audubon.org/get-involved/coastal-bird-stewardship and the Florida Shorebird Alliance flshorebirdalliance.org/