Birds take to the beach

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alex Echols
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Eighteen miles of pristine white sandy beaches line Tyndall's shores. For most, it is a great place to relax, swim or take the family out for a day. For some rare species of shorebird, the strand serves as a sanctuary.

The Least Tern, American Oyster Catcher, Snowy Plover, Black Skimmer, all listed as threatened or species of concern, migrate to the Panama City area for nesting, laying and hatching of their eggs.

"Usually, we do weekly or biweekly surveys with someone going out to identify which birds are here and if its nesting season, locating where the nest are as well as counting how many," said Wendy Jones, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron Natural Resources wildlife biologist at Tyndall.

The 325th CES with the help of partnerships with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Audubon of Florida, as well as volunteers, monitor these shorebirds during this period in an effort to protect them, according to Jones.

The surveys also help to detect the threats to the birds, said Ms. Jones. These threats include:

-Destruction and loss of habitat (Which is not a problem for the birds that nest at Tyndall because the beach here is undeveloped and untouched)
-People walking by or through shorebird nests in which they could cause a disturbance or possibly step on a chick or egg
-Dogs being allowed to run on the beach
-Reckless beach driving which could result in running over a chick
-Pollution which kills their food source
-Natural predators such as coyotes, raccoons and ghost crabs
-Natural disasters such as hurricanes
"We try to identify all those potential threats and then minimize them as best as we can," said Ms. Jones.

The human aspects of these threats are countered using two main methods: creating posted areas on the beach and fostering stewardship.

The posted areas are created to minimize human interaction with the birds. Every spring, Natural Resources and its partners cordon off parts for the beach in anticipation of the birds arrival.

"There are about 3,500 acres out on the beach, and we post about 200 acres for shorebird nesting," Ms. Jones said. "About six percent of the beach is allocated for the birds during that time."

A steward, in this sense, is a volunteer who is an active voice for the birds. They teach beach patrons about the birds and why it is so important to conserve them. They are a vocal deterrent to destruction from people that are not informed about what is harmful to these birds.

"Once you teach people a little bit about the ecosystem and how sensitive it is, 95 percent of the time they will say 'Oh we're sorry, we didn't know, but we won't do that again,'" said Ms. Jones.

"The program is exciting and going well," Bonnie Samuelsen, Audubon of Florida Coastal Shorebird Stewardship project manager, said. "The people in the Florida Panhandle that I have encountered definitely have a heightened awareness about Florida's coastal wildlife, their vulnerability and how important it is for all in the community to pull together for their conservation"

In a recent press release, Audubon of Florida published these tips for beach goers:

-Respect posted areas, even if you don't see birds inside them. Birds, eggs and nests are well-camouflaged with the beach environment, and disturbance by people can cause the abandonment of an entire colony.
-Give colony islands a wide berth, and when fishing, be sure not to leave any equipment behind. Always dispose of fishing line and tackle appropriately.
-Avoid disturbing groups of birds. If birds take flight or appear agitated, you are too close.
-Refrain from walking dogs or allowing cats to roam freely on beaches during the nesting season. Even on a leash, dogs are perceived as predators by nesting birds, sometimes causing adults to flee to even greater distances than pedestrians alone.
-Don't let pets off boats onto posted islands or beaches.
-If you must walk your dog on beaches, always keep them on a leash and away from the birds.
-Do not bury or leave trash, picnic leftovers, charcoal or fish scraps on the beach. They attract predators of chicks and eggs, such as fish crows, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and Laughing Gulls.
-Leave the fireworks at home and attend an official display instead. Impromptu fireworks on Florida's beaches and waterways can have catastrophic effects for vulnerable chicks and eggs.
-Beach-nesting birds sometimes nest outside of posted areas. If you notice birds circling noisily over your head, you may be near a nesting colony. Leave quietly, and enjoy the colony from a distance.

By following these simple tips, people can decrease the disturbance factor affecting shorebirds exponentially, making the beach an enjoyable place for people and birds alike.

"These birds have a tough enough life as it is trying to nest and survive out on these shifting dunes," said Gail Carmody, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and volunteer. "Anything we can do to stay out of their way so that they can be successful is worth the effort."