Kylie Wilson hopeful that the tiny threatened birds finally will achieve success this year after three years of failures
Each year, spring break season typically draws an abundance of tourists to the sugar-fine sand of Siesta Public Beach.
Yet, students are not the only ones who have been attracted to the shoreline that has won No. 1 beach rankings off and on over the past decade.
Other visitors that routinely make themselves at home on the barrier island are part of a group known formally as Charadrius nivosus. With a length up to 6.7 inches and a wingspan of 13.4 inches, snowy plovers have the perfect coloring to blend into the Siesta beach, making them far less visible than sunbathers.
In fact, camouflage “is their main form of protection,” Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Shorebird Stewardship and Monitoring Program in Sarasota County, pointed out of the snowy plovers during a March 10 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader.
The difficulty human visitors have spotting these avian visitors is just one facet of the increasing problems the snowy plovers have encountered on Siesta, Wilson added. In the past three years, she continued, more than 30 of the birds’ nests have been documented on Siesta’s shoreline, “and not a single egg has hatched.”
It takes a month for chicks to emerge from eggs, she said, and another month for any chicks that survive to “fledge,” which means they can fly on their own.
The baby birds that do make an appearance are even more difficult to spot than the adults, Audubon representatives have noted during past presentations to Siesta Key Association members. People often say the chicks look like Q-tips with cotton balls on top.
This spring break, Wilson has renewed her efforts to try to educate out-of-towners as well as residents about the importance of helping the snowy plovers thrive. “They are [a] ‘State-designated Threatened [Species],’” she noted of the birds, which means “They are protected by law.”
While March 1 officially marks the beginning of shorebird nesting season, Wilson added that the snowy plovers “started scraping a little earlier this year.” She was referring to their preparations for laying eggs, which they do in an spot they literally have scraped out, right on the surface of the beach.
No such action has been documented yet on Lido Beach, Wilson said.
The first nest on Siesta in 2020 was not found until the end of March, she added.
The nesting season continues through August, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission points out on a webpage devoted to the birds.
“Today I saw six [snowy plovers]” on Siesta, Wilson continued. “Last week, I saw 10.”
The numbers fluctuate not only because of migration this time of year, she noted, but also as a result of the birds flying back and forth between Siesta and Lido.
And Lido was where they did manage some nesting success in 2020, she pointed out. “By July, we had no nesting on Siesta.”
Vandalism, dogs and predation
Wilson already had scheduled the telephone interview with the News Leader when she found a prime example of the plovers’ problems on Siesta.
About 7 a.m. on March 10, she said, she reached the property owned by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which she and volunteers routinely mark off each season with yellow caution tape attached to stakes. (That effort, she explained, is to try to protect the site as a “pre-nesting enclave.”)
That morning, she saw right away, she said, that the area had been vandalized. “I’m guessing it happened last night,” Wilson added, as an Audubon volunteer checks on it each day.
About two-thirds of the tape was down, with stakes strewn on the ground. “The whole area smells like urine,” she told the News Leader. “It was disgusting. That was a new one for me.”
She did report the incident to law enforcement officers and to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), she added. FWC is the authority that handles most enforcement issues regarding shore-nesting birds.
In fact, Wilson said, if anyone sees a person entering a nesting enclosure or vandalizing nesting areas, the person should call the FWC hotline: 888-404-3922.
Wilson explained that a path leading from private homes to the beach crosses the Conservation Foundation property. In an effort not to impede the access of people who use that path, Wilson said, two pre-nesting areas had been marked, one on either side of the path.
Because the county beaches were closed for weeks last spring in an effort to prevent transmission of COVID-19, Wilson noted, human destruction of nesting areas was not a problem. However, she added, in 2019, “We definitely had several instances of vandalism.”
People might think that the birds would be happier and more secure in the various types of dune coverings that have become thicker on the beach in recent years, she pointed out, but the plovers “need sparse vegetation” for their nesting sites.
Additionally, Wilson noted, lots of people translate into “a lot of disturbance” for the birds.
Wilson referenced the crowd sizes on Siesta during spring break season. “It’s a bigger party beach [than Lido].”
Two other major concerns are predation and dogs, Wilson emphasized.
Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s substation on the Key, has reminded Siesta Key Association members many times in recent months that the county ordinance governing activities on the beach forbids dogs, unless they are service animals. If a deputy sees a person with a dog, Smith has explained, the deputy will educate the individual about the ordinance and ask the person to take the dog off the beach. People who refuse to comply with the law can be cited, he has pointed out.
Many visitors from other parts of Florida apparently are accustomed to more flexible regulations, Smith has noted. Often, he has indicated, people with dogs on Siesta Public Beach are Florida residents.
Wilson explained that snowy plovers see a dog and think, “Coyote.” They will abandon a nest if they feel threatened by a dog, she has explained — even if eggs that have been laid are close to hatching.
Yet another factor that causes them problems, she said, is their solitary nature. “They don’t nest in a colony, like terns.”
As for predators: “Unfortunately,” Wilson said, “everything eats snowy plover eggs and chicks.” The No. 1 culprits, she continued, are crows. “They’re so intelligent,” she pointed out of those birds.
Crows actually notice the stake-and-tape postings in the Conservation Foundation areas, she explained. Moreover, Wilson pointed out, human and animal activities in a nesting area will draw crows’ attention. “Unfortunately, disturbances and predation go hand-in-hand.”
An optimistic outlook
Wilson told the News Leader she hopes to work with Sarasota County staff to get some new signs erected to alert visitors to the beach about the nesting season.
In years past — before county staff members began an initiative to reduce what they called “sign pollution” at beach accesses — larger postings showed what plovers look like and offered details about the birds.
And while the pandemic has led to fewer volunteers helping her educate the public, Wilson noted, anyone interested in undergoing the necessary training to assist her is welcome to email her. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moreover, she told the News Leader, she is hopeful that more Siesta residents will help with outreach on their own when they are on the beach. She encourages people to tell visitors about the fact that the snowy plovers long have nested on the Key. “It’s an important spot for [the birds].”
Finally, Wilson said she probably will be out on the beach herself over the coming weekend. She will be easy to spot, she added: She will be wearing a shirt that says, “Ask me about the birds.”