Audubon’s Shorebird Stewardship Program in Collier County has a big presence at Sand Dollar Island, aka the Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), where rare and threatened birds nest during the summer. These special birds lay their eggs right on the sand and repeated human or dog disturbances often result in birds abandoning the colony.
Every weekend, shorebird biologists, stewards and volunteers monitor the nesting colony of Black Skimmers, Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers. They are important conservation ambassadors to help coastal visitors learn about the birds and what is happening inside posted areas. They talk to beachgoers and boaters about how and why it is important to share the beach with these imperiled species.
Memorial Day weekend brought crowds and parties to the central beach of Marco Island, and Sand Dollar Island was no exception. The weekend brought people, boats, parties, dogs, tents and trash to areas near the vulnerable nesting colony.
Audubon’s Shorebird Stewards worked hard all weekend long to protect the birds and their habitats, but even with the occasional presence of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the City of Marco Island and Collier County law enforcement, it was not enough
FWC biologist Brittany Piersma was working overtime from morning to sunset, along with her colleagues from Audubon, Florida and several dedicated volunteers. Brittany said the afternoons were the worst, filled with crowds of people, parties, boats and dogs.
“No Dogs” signs are visibly posted all around the nesting colony, but that did not deter most dog owners from allowing their dogs into the posted areas. According to the volunteers, people were not rude – but they just smiled and threw their trash anywhere they liked and kept grilling their hot dogs and walking their “service dogs.” A man with a dog told a volunteer that “the rule is anywhere below the mean tide line,” and he kept waking with his dog down the beach.
The stewards know all too well that when boaters or beachgoers approach a nesting bird too closely, they may unintentionally cause the death of chicks or eggs. When parent birds are flushed from their nests, they leave an unprotected egg or chick vulnerable to the heat of the baking sun or to predators. A dog flushing a colony can destroy an entire colony in minutes.
The message that “coastal birds are facing a crisis and that seabirds around the world have decreased by 70% since 1950…” was lost to this crowd of beachgoers, as was the simple message of “let’s share the beach with our wildlife.”
According to Jean Hall, volunteer, “at the same time that the seabird populations are declining, they are dealing with human challenges to their nesting habitat – tropical storms, trash, human disturbance, dogs, and natural predators such as raccoons, rats, and Fish Crows.” Crows are drawn to the beach because of trash left behind by beachgoers. For this weekend, the crows enjoying the feast, also stopped to eat the eggs and chicks. Hall said the few volunteers watched this scene all weekend long at Sand Dollar Island and it tugged at their hearts.
Unfortunately, due to the protocol of COVID-19, Audubon had a limited capacity to set up an informational tent at the nesting colony this year. In years past, the big tent was shared by City, County, State Law Enforcement and volunteers, and beachgoers shared the beach with the nesting colony. It worked!