Beach-nesting birds on Florida’s Gulf Coast took a beating this week with the relentless rain and storm surge brought on by Tropical Storm Debby. While these hardy birds are adapted to the harsh environment that they call home, scouring sands blown by tropical storm-force winds, storm surges many feet above normal, and relentless, chilling rain caused the death of chicks and abandonment of many colonies on the Gulf Coast, from Collier to Walton counties.
• At Three Rooker Island off the coast of Pinellas County, the large island rookery overwashed, drowning thousands of Tern and Gull chicks and causing the colony to fail. This will bring to a close the bird stewarding season for the dedicated volunteers at this site—our gratitude for their commitment and our condolences to them on this outcome. While it is a natural occurrence, that offers little consolation when these birds already face such dramatic odds as a result of human disturbance and habitat loss.
• Earlier this season, surveys of Flag Island off the coast of St. Vincent’s Island reported substantial numbers and confirmed nesting of Least, Caspian, and Gull-billed terns, Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers. While hopefully some of these birds managed to fledge young before the storm, the island was reported to have completely submerged during the storm, and flightless chicks would not have survived.
• The Old St. George Causeway nesting island which enjoyed the attentions of Audubon volunteers and Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) staff earlier this year supported a raucous colony of terns, gulls and other seabirds prior to the storm. NERR staff reported earlier this week that not only had the island overwashed in the storm, but the tern nesting area was still underwater, with a few adult terns flying overhead. The only silver lining: volunteers this year worked hard to beat back vegetation colonizing this island and making the habitat unsuitable for nesting by terns and some of their allies. The flooding from this storm will likely have done more than a legion of volunteers could, and we are hopeful the habitat will be exceptional for the birds next season.
• On Pinellas and Sarasota municipal beaches, beachgoers have delighted this season at the spectacle of large colonies of nesting black skimmers and the antics of hundreds of chicks. To the horror of area bird stewards, TS Debby completely wiped out these colonies. Southwest Florida is essential to Black Skimmers in our state—few nest on Florida’s East Coast or Panhandle beaches– and worried stewards are scouting the beaches for signs of re-nesting, ready to post protected areas for the birds in the hope of producing some fledges for this season.
• Biologists and volunteers from Collier County’s Sand Dollar Beach and Lee County’s Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area report substantial colony losses, but glimmers of hope: Least Terns displaying courtship behavior at Carlos Pointe this morning and a new American Oystercatcher nest in Lee County—the first for this site in recent memory!
• In many parts of Central Florida, Wood Storks and other waders had adolescent chicks in their nests while TS Debby passed overhead. The persistent rain followed by flooded wetlands have made it unlikely parents will be able to gather enough food to help many of these young survive to fledging.
As conservationists and admirers of the natural world, what do we take home from this?
• Courage to change the things we can: Even without human disturbance and habitat loss, these birds have got it rough! All the more reason for us to do all we can to diminish the threats we have some control over… to give the birds as much of a fighting chance as possible in the face of threats we cannot control.
• Emphasis on the early season: Some of these birds may re-nest, especially species like Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Snowy Plovers (encouragingly, new eggs have been reported in a few places already). But that said, for some of them, the eggs and chicks lost to this storm were already their second or third attempts for the season, after prior failures. The later into the season these birds nest, the greater the likelihood of tropical weather events like TS Debby. Helping birds nest successfully early in the season is especially important, before hurricane season swings into action.
• They don’t call them “shifting sands” for nothing: We are reminded that shorebirds and seabirds are the “anarchists” of the bird world, depending on the dynamism of coastal habitat to keep open sandy patches free of vegetation and mudflats and shoals available for foraging. In the places where beaches are allowed to shift in storm events like this one, the birds should enjoy prime habitat next season, renewed by the storm. In places where beaches are constrained by jetties, seawalls and the built environment, storm erosion from TS Debby has reduced future habitat for the birds in many locations. In short, for the future health of our coasts, Floridians need to find more opportunities to let coastal processes follow their natural course.
For more on the effects of TS Debby at local sites, join the conversation at the Florida Shorebird Alliance’s Facebook Page.
How you can help: The birds are down, but not out… so we’re not either! To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about coastal bird volunteer opportunities near you.