What does it tell us about the Gulf of Mexico when shorebirds move to town?

A colony of about 20 least terns nested on the gravel rooftop of a building on the island of Venice in the spring of 2018.

That surprised long-time birders with the Venice Area Audubon Society

Monitors are watching to see if least terns return in late April or May to nest on the beach, which is normal, or go back to a gravel rooftop, according to Bob Clark.

Clark, a member of the local chapter, is the regional representative on the Gulf Coast Conservation Committee of the National Audubon Society.

“As beaches more frequently erode from sea level rise and become more crowded, threatened least terns look to gravel rooftops of commercial buildings as an alternative nesting site,” Clark said.

‘Birds and people’“The Gulf of Mexico is one of America’s great ecological treasures,” according to a report just released by the National Audubon Society.

“The challenges facing the wildlife and human communities of the Gulf have been, and continue to be, significant.”

Consequently, the report says, the organization will launch “a multifaceted strategy to restore habitat and to monitor birds from Florida to Texas. These efforts will help in the region’s continued recovery following disasters like oil spills and hurricanes, while also mitigating future threats caused by sea level rise, development and human disturbance.”

The name of the report is: “Audubon’s Vision Restoring the Gulf of Mexico for Birds and People.”

Down in the 90-page report is a simple sentence: “The Gulf without birds would no longer be the Gulf.”

That sentence will resonate with coastal residents in Sarasota and Charlotte counties who experienced last year’s months-long outbreak of red tide, along with thick mats of blue-green algae. For long stretches of time and distance, there were no people on the beaches and no birds. All that was on the beach was dead fish.

Brenda Bossman, who has lived in Englewood since 1986, has watched the decline of black skimmers, snowy plovers, American oyster catchers, least terns and other shorebirds that nest on area beaches.

Bossman, who walks beaches almost every day, is president of the Venice Area Audubon Society.

“Brown pelican populations have been going up” locally as that species continues its decades-long recovery following a ban on the pesticide DDT, Bossman said.

The populations of other species of birds are “mostly down.”

The problems faced by the shorebirds Bossman mentioned include climate change and sea level rise.

Sea level rise is apparent to Bossman, who has spent 35 years on the beaches of Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

Nests get washed over “whenever a storm sends water up on our beaches – even just a couple of feet,” she said. “As sea level rises, the problems for birds are going to get worse.”

The “loss of habitat” is happening, too, because “lots of people are moving onto the beaches.”

For example, “American oystercatchers are very sensitive to the presence of humans, predators, dogs or anything.”

“When a shorebird — a snowy plover or a least tern — sees a dog, those birds will get off their nest and try to drive the dog away. Or they will act injured, pretend to have a broken wing, and try to distract the dog away from the nest. As soon as the bird leaves the nest, crows come and go after the hatchlings in the nest.”

A shorebird perceives a dog on a leash as just as much of a threat as a dog not on a leash, Bossman said.

Bossman is not aware of any nesting sites on the beaches in Venice.

Dogs are on the beach almost every day, albeit only in limited areas — legally. Also, some people speculate the sand along the renourished beach in Venice might not appeal to nesting birds.

Migratory birds, like red knots and piping plovers, which travel through coastal Sarasota and Charlotte counties, are also spooked by the presence of people, Bossman said.

“If they see many people, they won’t stay and rest,” she said. “It’s a problem.”

Audubon’s report lists 11 “flagship species” of birds that will be the focus of data collection and restoration efforts: least tern, black skimmer; snowy plover, clipper rail; red knot; piping plover; brown pelican; Western sandpiper; American oystercatcher; semipalmated sandpiper; and reddish egret.

Oil and waterAudubon’s report on Gulf restoration says, “On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 people and unleashing one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The well gushed oil for 87 days, damaging marine and coastal habitats and wildlife.”

Five years later, a $20.8 billion settlement was reached between BP – the owner of the oil rig —and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The National Audubon Society has received a portion of that money and will use it to help in the restoration efforts outlined in the report “Restoring the Gulf of Mexico for Birds and People.”

Specific restoration efforts in Florida over the next couple of years will involve sites to the north and south of coastal Sarasota and Charlotte. They are:

Cape Sable, on the southern tip of Florida. Audubon plans to spend $5.3 million in the Florida Everglades to restore the hurricane-ruined Florida Embankment, a natural barrier between Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Restoring Florida Bay wetlands is considered essential to increase reproduction of bird life in the freshwater ecosystem.

The Alfia Bank Bird Sanctuary in Hillsborough County, which has the largest wading bird colony on Florida’s west coast. Sixteen species — including roseate spoonbills — totaling 5,000 pairs birds nest there. Audubon will spend $3.3 million there.

Greater Tampa Bay waterbird rookeries. That $2.2 million project will protect marine, coastal and riparian habitats in the Tampa Bay watershed, including the Braden River in Manatee County.

Audubon’s Gulf Restoration plan casts a much wider net, however, and includes the monitoring of bird populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Data is used to document problems and successes. The Venice Area Audubon Society is part of a Gulf-wide network that plays a continuing role in that effort. Audubon, meanwhile, began monitoring Florida’s birds in 1901.

Locally, an annual, one-day survey is conducted within a 16-mile radius, according to Clark, of the Venice chapter. On a day in mid-December 2018, about 100 volunteers spread out and documented every bird they saw between the Venice Jetties on the north, Interstate 75 on the east and Stump Pass on the south.

“The numbers didn’t drop down as much as I had expected, given the fact that red tide” was around all year, Clark said. “There were fewer birds along the coast, however.”

Clark said birds will have to continue to struggle to maintain a foothold in the Venice area.

“The birds have fewer and fewer places to live, breathe and feed,” he said. “Development is taking more habitat.”

The Venice area’s Audubon chapter has about 300 members. Along the Gulf in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, there are 71 chapters and 118,000 members.

Climate changeClimate change is apparent, said Clark, who noted he moved here from the Midwest five years ago because of the climate.

“A lot of birds that used to migrate through here now live here,” he said.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are among them, he said. They can be seen paddling around stormwater retention ponds in new, gated communities.

As for the impact of climate change on people as well as birds, the Audubon report says, “Hurricanes are not a new occurrence on the Gulf coast. However, recent studies have shown that climate change is increasing the size, strength and duration of these storms. Extensive development in coastal areas and the loss of coastal islands, marshes and forests have resulted in increased damages to more people and communities on a more frequent basis.

Destructive hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 provided “a powerful reminder to advance large-scale coastal restoration and rebuild our natural infrastructure to reduce risks to people and businesses, while protecting and strengthening habitat for birds.”

Algal bloomsThe toxic algae red tide doe not get much attention in the 90-page report. Nor do large-scale outbreaks of blue-green algae, which plagued the Gulf and Atlantic coasts last year after releases of water from Lake Okeechobee.

The report does say, “In the face of an array of challenges that include rising sea levels, habitat loss, harmful algal blooms and human alterations to the landscape, Audubon Florida is committed to growing the state’s population of migratory and resident coastal waterbirds through acquisition, stewardship, restoration and conservation initiatives.”

Venice rookeryRoosting and breeding areas up along rivers, in wetlands and ponds, are also important to many species of birds in Florida. The Venice Area Audubon Rookery — which consists of a small pond with an island where egrets, great blue herons, night herons and other birds roost — provides the public with a way to learn about birds. The easily accessible rookery is behind the Robert L. Anderson Administration Center on U.S. 41, just north of Jacaranda Boulevard. Admission is free and the rookery is open from sunrise to sunset every day.

Clark said the local chapter’s education program helps “citizens of all generations come together to better appreciated the outdoors and wildlife, especially local and migrating bird species.”

“Included in this effort is an extensive education program for second graders at all of the schools in South County.”

Also, the chapter annually schedules “more than 50 bird hikes open to all citizens, from beginners to expert birders. Newcomers have found these hikes especially valuable as an introduction to Florida birding.”

Volunteers are present at the rookery most days, to provide visitors with binoculars and a sighting scope, and to talk about the various species of birds.

The Audubon report says one reason people might want to know about birds is because “birds can serve as an indicator species” that show whether the ecosystem is healthy. A Gulf of Mexico ecosystem that is healthy for birds, “will benefit the people who live in or depend upon this region” and its natural heritage.

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