If you took a walk on some sections of Pensacola Beach over the last few weeks, you may have come across some areas that were off limits to humans. "That's something that's been going on for years, now. It's just postings to mark off the fact that there are nesting shore birds in the area" said Becca Nelson, the Public Information Director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We want people to know to keep their distance. We want people to respect those posted areas. A lot of times the birds and their nests and their hatchlings are hard to see. You can be walking by and not even notice [them]. So by posting it off we are giving those birds space and, hopefully, successful hatchlings."
Most of the work finding the nests and deciding which areas to post is done by Audubon Florida. "Most of the areas that you see on Pensacola Beach are for the sea birds, specifically least terns and black skimmers" said Dr. Caroline Stahala, a Program Manager with Audubon Florida. "Each year the birds do come to Pensacola Beach and set up nesting sites. They're found on Perdido Key, they're found on (both sections of) Gulf Islands National Seashore, the public beaches in Pensacola and all the way to Navarre."
Different areas of the beach are roped off each nesting season depending on where the birds happen to settle. Dr. Stahala says that while the same amount of birds show up year after year, this year there are nesting sites on areas of the beach that have not seen them in recent years. "We watch them, we monitor. And when they start exhibiting those particular nesting behaviors, like forming scrapes in the sand, that's when we show up."
And while the nesting season has been under way for a few weeks, there has been a major interruption. The wind, rain and high tides from Tropical Storm Cindy did some damage. "After the storm we went back and checked on all the sites we had been monitoring, and what we found was right around 50 percent of our sites and the chicks and the nests were lost."
Dr. Stahala says that there is still time in the nesting season for birds whose nests were washed away, to start over. "We are hoping that those individuals that lost nests will either resettle in the areas [where] they lost the nest, or move to some of the other sites where we have established nesting. And this only happens to a certain point in the season. These are migratory birds, so they do leave in the fall. So right now we're at the end of that window. So we are hoping that they settle down and re-nest."
When you go to an area of the beach that has been set aside for nesting, you’ll see some colorful signs that were specially designed for Audubon Florida. "We had a Girl Scout troop out of Tallahassee that designed some signs for us based on some of the things we see happening when people approach nests. So the Girl Scouts are basically letting the public know how to act around nesting birds."
The shore bird nesting areas will continue to be roped off until the last chick leaves the nest, usually around late August or early September. And while people will still be allowed on the beach, Becca Nelson from Florida Fish and Wildlife says it’s best to keep your distance. A good rule is to stay at least 300 feet from a nest. You don't want to have the birds fly away because then they would be off their nests and predation could come or the chicks [could be] exposed to the sun for longer periods of time. Those are things that we want to prevent. So having the posting and letting people know that this is what's happening in the area, just to watch out for it, it's just really important."
All officials say that if you’re at the beach you should never feed the birds, even the ones that are not nesting like seagulls. They are predators who will attack the nests and eat the eggs. Audubon Florida also has a volunteer program to help monitor the nesting areas. You can contact them at fl.audubon.org.