Audubon of Florida News

Causeway Habitat Improved for Nesting Terns in Northwest Florida

posted on May 4, 2012 in Coastal Conservation,Volunteering,Wildlife

Audubon Florida’s Northwest Florida Coastal Bird Conservation Coordinator Alan Knothe submits this report on the good work happening at the Bryant Patton Bridge Project near St. George Island in Franklin County. Enjoy!

If you were to take the new Bryant Patton Bridge south from Eastpoint, FL to St. George Island, to your left you would see what is left of the old bridge, now being used as a fishing pier. A little further on and you would see another remnant of the old bridge, the St. George Island Causeway. This causeway island, approximately 1.3 miles long and 50 yards wide, is one of the most important nesting sites in the Panhandle for terns, skimmers, oystercatchers and laughing gulls. Documented nesting species include Least Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Sooty Tern (one pair in 2007 & 2008), Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher and Laughing Gull. All of these birds with the exception of Laughing Gull are listed in some way.

Each year the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) surveys the nesting birds in order to keep track of population fluctuations and nesting success. Audubon Florida helped with the survey in 2011 when an alarming problem was noted.

In years past the gulls had always nested in the central portion of the island where there were tall grasses, the preferred nesting habitat for laughing gulls. In 2011, however, the grasses had spread south growing up just adjacent to the nesting terns and the gulls migrated south with the grasses. The problem with this is gulls are nest predators.

Another problem was also noted during the 2011 nesting season by Audubon volunteer Ted Ruffner. Being that it is a man-made island, much of the causeway is surrounded by seawalls. Mr. Ruffner was fishing near the island from his boat when he noticed tern chicks falling from the wall into the water of Apalachicola Bay. Without human intervention the chicks would not have any way to get back onto the island.

A partnership was quickly formed between ANERR and Audubon Florida to begin an ambitious project to help these nesting birds. The first thing that needed to be done was to confer with other shorebird experts about the best plan of action. The problems were described at the fall meeting of the Florida Panhandle Shorebird Working Group. After much brainstorming, it was decided that the best course of action was to physically remove the grasses from the south end of the causeway. To solve the problem of chicks in the water chick fencing would be installed along the edge of the seawall creating a barrier that would keep the chicks from falling into the water.

Now that a plan was in place the next step was to put it into action. There were three stages to the project that needed to be completed before the start of the tern nesting season. The first stage was to survey the island for American Oystercatcher nests. Oystercatchers begin nesting much earlier than terns, and ANERR and Audubon wanted to make sure the work did not disturb or destroy any nests. Alan Knothe of Audubon Florida organized and led a crew of volunteers on this mission. Ted Ruffner volunteered his services and boat to transport Alan and volunteers Dianah Knothe, Pam Stevens, Brad Smith and Amanda Canning to the causeway on March 11. When we got to the causeway, it quickly became apparent the direr need for this project. It was completely grown over with tall grasses and other vegetation. It was doubtful that the terns and skimmers could find any bare sand to nest on, and if they did, they would probably be nesting right in the middle of nesting gulls. It took about two hours to thoroughly survey the island, and no oystercatcher nests were found.

The next stage of the project was completed by ANERR staff on March 16. A tractor was taken to the causeway by boat. The tractor was used to mow down and plow under the grasses and other vegetation on the south end of the causeway. This is the area were the terns and skimmers nested traditionally.

The third stage of the project involved both ANERR staff and Audubon volunteers. On April 3, two ANERR staff and seven Audubon volunteers headed to the causeway to complete the work. Once there, they finish the removal of vegetation by using weed whackers in areas where the tractor could not reach due to terrain. They also installed chick fencing up and down the sea wall to keep this year’s chicks from falling “overboard.” ANERR and Audubon will be checking on the success of the project when they do their regular survey of the nesting birds near the end of May.

Audubon also protects these birds and other nesting shorebirds up and down the Panhandle Coast with their Shorebird Stewardship Program. In this program volunteers are stationed adjacent to known nesting sites in order to protect the birds from human disturbance. The volunteers educate the public about the birds and steer them away from the nesting sites.

If you would like to get involved, contact Alan Knothe at aknothe@audubon.org or 850-71-6331.

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