Pleas for protection of plovers on Siesta Key come as July Fourth holiday nears

Yet another nest lost this week

This snowy plover sits on the latest nest discovered on Siesta Key. Image courtesy of Kylie Wilson

For the fourth year in a row, the endangered snowy plovers are experiencing nesting failures on Siesta Key, and that makes the upcoming July Fourth holiday period an even more trepidatious time for the birds.

That was the news this week from Kylie Wilson, Audubon Florida’s Shorebird Program coordinator in the county.

Wilson, who is managing her fourth nesting season for Audubon Florida, told The Sarasota News Leader on June 21 that a combination of factors has led to Siesta’s becoming less likely a home for snowy plover fledglings. The situation is in stark contrast, she pointed out, to the success the plovers routinely experienced on the barrier islands in past years.

“There’s only been two nests on Siesta all season,” Wilson said. “That’s really unfortunate.”

The most recent nest, which a volunteer discovered last week, already was empty by the time she checked it again on June 23, she told the News Leader.

In her June 21 update to volunteers and other supporters of the program, Wilson had written, “The nest had two eggs when it was posted on Tuesday last week. Unfortunately, volunteers have said they didn’t see the female over the weekend.”

By “posted,” she meant the erection of wooden stakes and yellow tape around it, to try to protect it.

The last time chicks were documented on the island was in 2016, Wilson told the News Leader.

The birds’ only defense is camouflage, Wilson explained. They blend into the background of the sparsely vegetated areas they target for their nests, and those nests are created directly on top of the sand.

“People don’t notice them,” she said of the birds.

A post with information about the snowy plovers’ nesting habits lies in the sand on Siesta Beach in late March 2019, after the site was vandalized. Photo contributed by Kylie Wilson

And when a nest is discovered, and she or a volunteer posts it with hope that the eggs will be able to hatch, the game camera she installs nearby often shows individuals walking into the site, she continued. People do not realize that they will scare the birds away, she added.

“These are a very vulnerable bird,” Wilson stressed of the snowy plovers. The fact that no chicks have survived on Siesta in close to four years is “really bad,” she said.

In July 2020, the Florida Shorebird Alliance published its last report on nesting seabird and shorebird populations, “following a standardized survey protocol,” which was developed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Alliance noted in a letter from the editors at the beginning of the document.

The number of snowy plover pairs in the state between 2015 and 2019 ranged from a minimum of 98 to 155, the report noted.

The Panhandle and areas of Southwest Florida are the only locations where the snowy plovers are found in Florida, Wilson said. The Panhandle has been their stronghold, she pointed out.

From Pinellas County south to Sanibel Island, she continued, “They nest kind patchily along the coast.”

These are facts about snowy plovers. Image from the Florida Shorebird Alliance

“We have to be more mindful and care about these birds,” Wilson told the News Leader, “or we’re going to lose them for good.”

Unlike the snowy plovers, she said, the black skimmers and least terns on Lido Key, for example, “have the power of numbers.”

Wilson has documented increasing numbers of those birds on Lido in recent years.

The Florida Shorebird Alliance notes that snowy plover nests typically are discovered between mid-February and late July each season. Yet, the earlier months coincide with high tourist season in Southwest Florida. This year, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta, told the News Leader that he and his fellow officers saw season begin early and linger late.

Along with Sheriff’s Office personnel, residents have emphasized how very busy the 2021 season was, in the aftermath of so many closures in March and April 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the factors on Siesta to which Wilson attributes the plovers’ nesting difficulties are the rising number of tourists recent years and beachgoers often leaving trash on the shoreline. The garbage attracts crows, which are one of the primary predators of plover nests, she noted.

Crows are keenly intelligent, Wilson has explained to the News Leader in the past. If they already have been drawn to the beach, she pointed out, they will readily notice nesting activity and await an opportunity to gobble up plover eggs.

Even feeding seagulls produces extra debris on the beach, which draws predators, Wilson said.

That is all the more reason for her heightened concern about the upcoming July Fourth holiday, when tens of thousands of people typically throng to Siesta for the day and then stay for the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s fireworks show after dark.

Given the fact that festivities were cancelled last summer because of the pandemic, an even bigger crowd could be possible this year on the island.

Dogs and other issues

People also continue to violate Sarasota County’s ordinance that forbids dogs on the beach, Wilson pointed out.

Even if a plover is sitting on a nest with eggs close to hatching, she explained, that plover will abandon the nest if a dog comes close to it.

Surveillance footage shows a dog disturbing a snowy plover nest on Siesta Key in early April 2020. Photo courtesy of Kylie Wilson and Florida Audubon

Sgt. Smith of the Sheriff’s Office has emphasized numerous times to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members that deputies work hard to educate visitors about the county regulation. Yet, visitors are not the only violators, he and SKA directors have pointed out. Over the years, island residents have been found to ignore the ordinance. At times, dogs are not even kept on leashes, observers have said.

In years past, volunteers have spread the word about the plovers to beachgoers, even to the extent of passing out flyers at accesses to the shoreline, Wilson noted. “We could have volunteers to educate people,” she added. However, the lack of nesting success has resulted in a sharp drop-off in the number of people interested in helping her on Siesta, Wilson said.

“It’s hard to have someone sitting out there for three hours to educate people,” Wilson added, if those persons also do not have nests to tend, as well.

This is Ms. Sanibel. Photo courtesy of Kylie Wilson

As this season has gone on, Wilson continued, she has seen at least one snowy plover that has spent time on both Siesta and Lido. The bird is called Ms. Sanibel because of a band the bird has on one of its legs. That band identifies the plover as a past visitor to Sanibel Island.

Just last week, Wilson noted, she spotted Ms. Sanibel on Siesta; this week, the bird is back on Lido.

“These birds need the beach to survive,” she stressed. “They’re not going to continue to keep trying [to nest on Siesta],” she added, if they keep encountering problems.

“There are so few places for these birds,” Wilson said. “We really need to be respectful that they need that space [on Siesta Beach].”