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Breeding season for shore-nesting birds is in full swing, and Audubon Florida is reminding boaters and beachgoers how important it is to “share the beach” with these vulnerable species, especially with holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July coming up.

This is a critical time of year for these birds—including black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns—that lay their eggs right on the beach, according to Megan Hatten, Audubon’s Southwest Florida shorebird program manager.

“These shorebirds all dig what is called a scrape, and it’s just a little egg cup about three inches wide and an inch to an inch-and-a-half deep in the sand,” Hatten said in a late April interview. “They’re not really burrowing; they’re on top of the sand and it’s just a little dug out. Wilson’s plovers will usually choose an area closer to vegetation, in the sea grass or sea oats, but the skimmers and the least terns like the wide-open sand areas because they nest in the big colonies.”

The nests built by these species—directly in the sand—don’t contain any “decoration” with twigs and other materials in the manner of some birds’ nests built in trees, Hatten said, so beachgoers need to be aware when they see a colony of these birds and assume they are nesting and not just resting. The birds perceive people and dogs as threats and will “flush,” or take flight, when disturbed, according to an Audubon press release—with repeated human disturbance often resulting in birds abandoning the colony.

So how do beachgoers know when they are near a shorebird’s nest? Hatten said that some birds will pretend to be injured and “scream” at people getting too close to their precious eggs.

“With the Wilson’s plovers, adults will come out and feign an injury—we call it ‘broken- winging’—and start to scream at you and flap their wings,” Hatten said. “That’s when you are probably too close to their nest. You want to look down at your feet, make sure you’re not about to step on eggs and then walk toward the shoreline, because they’re not going to be below the high tide line; they’re always going to be above that line.

“For least terns and black skimmers, who nest in big colonies, if you’re coming across a large group of them sitting on the sand, you’re probably close to a colony and you want to give them as much of a berth as you can because their eggs are extremely camouflaged: They are white and speckled, so they blend right in with the sand.”

Hatten said several “historically important nesting beaches” in Collier County, including Big Marco Critical Wildlife Area, Morgan Beach and Dickman’s Point, are posted with signage, roped off and closed to people while the birds incubate eggs and raise their chicks. Other areas, including Clam Pass, have signage reminding beachgoers to respect the birds’ nesting boundaries.

“I always try to connect it back to [the fact that] we’re coming into their home, so we always want to be respectful to them because it’s an energetically draining time of year for them,” Hatten said. “The more that people are able to walk around them at the shoreline or stay away from the postings as much as possible, the better. If we can reduce the number of times they’re ‘flushing,’ that helps out the entire [colony] population: It doesn’t just help the adults, it gives the chicks more time with their parents.

“We have quite a lot of beach here in Collier County; we’re very spoiled with that. There’s space for everyone—and if we can give them their space and we can enjoy it, as well, then it’s better for everyone in the end.”

This story was published in The Naples Press on May 3.

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