Bird Watching

Saving shorebirds, one trip at a time

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Ed Steponaitis jumps off the boat and trudges through the murky, warm Gulf of Mexico. His shorts are soaked in salt water up to the waist.

He wades 50 yards to Three Rooker Island, a crescent-shaped haven west of Tarpon Springs. Swarms of birds hover above, squealing and croaking.

On the shore, he admires the black-headed gulls mingling near the waves. The black skimmers take advantage of the balmy June air. An oystercatcher or two. A cormorant. He watches them argue, fish, mate.

“Every time I go out, it’s like the first time,” said Steponaitis, 80.

For four years, he has visited the small sandbank. His hikes at Three Rooker are a blessing, “a reason to spend more time in nature,” he says.

And a chance to help his beloved birds.

A multitude of human disturbances – dogs, drones and fireworks – threaten Florida’s shorebirds. They can protect their eggs and chicks from predators. But against the crowds of beachgoers and party boaters?

The birds are helpless, says Steponaitis.

He is part of a group of dedicated volunteers who watch over the winged creatures. On weekends during the breeding season, Steponaitis can be found making slow laps around the island, passing ghost crabs and mangroves making their way towards the water. Along the way, he educates curious beach goers.

“Tell me about the birds,” a woman asks him.

And he does.

The program

Shorebirds have battled a long and sometimes grim list of threats. Traders plucked plumage for hats and dresses decades ago, leading some species to the brink of extinction. Today, worsening storms and tidal waves, fueled by climate change, are putting established settlements at risk. And the growing red tide flowers infect the growls, mules, and pinfish that birds eat.

One thing is consistent: people remain their greatest danger.

In addition to causing pollution, crowds bring alterations and disturbances that encroach on bird habitats, especially since animals protect nests and offspring.

A stray sparkle from a Roman candle is enough to put the skimmers into a frenzy. A drone can surprise a wandering white ibis. Increased activity near July 4, a year with a long tourist season, increases the risk of harmful interactions.

Then there are the Floridians, like Steponaitis, who seek to counter the tide of peril.

They join the Audubon Bird Stewardship and Watch Program, a statewide volunteer effort designed to investigate shorebirds in the wild. Stewards educate people about the personalities of Red Knots and Piping Plovers. They chase unruly visitors politely and positively. They seek to minimize encounters that are too close together.

During unpaid shifts, participants trained by Audubon Florida in Pinellas and Sarasota counties inspect seven nesting sites. Colleague volunteers patrol the state.

“They are there to help the birds,” said Holley Short, Audubon shorebird biologist. “To save them.”

In 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed 53 percent of shorebird species on its Birds of Conservation Concern list.

It includes black skimmers, which are scattered along North American coasts and have lost 87 percent of their population since 1996, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Several of Florida’s most recognizable birds, including pelicans, American oystercatchers, and least terns, are labeled “endangered” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The stewardship program was created two decades ago in response to troubling trends.

“This has been the most powerful positive force for frontline conservation of anything we’ve tried,” said Dan Larremore, biologist at Honeymoon Island State Park. “It’s just to try and give the birds two months of peace and quiet so they can hatch their eggs and make their chicks fly. They deserve it.”

Volunteers come from different backgrounds, at different stages of life. A retired teacher on Treasure Island. A documentary photographer. A student from Eckerd College.

All are on a mission to preserve something that they believe is worth saving.

“There are so many environmental issues that you have to start small,” said Amber Christian, 32, a longtime volunteer from Oldsmar. “Otherwise, it’s overwhelming.”


Steponaitis points the curious woman towards the royal terns in his sights.

They choose to breed in Anclote Key State Park, away from large predators such as raccoons, he says. Many spread their wings above the nests to prevent the eggs from scrambling in the heat. When the chicks are born, the parents waddle a few inches behind.

Keep your distance, Steponaitis warns her. “Be aware of them.”

The love of birds unites him and his fellow volunteers. But each steward varies in patience and practice.

Ginger Goepper makes the short drive to St. Pete’s Beach from Treasure Island on Friday morning to watch the skimmers. Her long hair shines in the sun as she approaches the children, drawing on 40 years of teaching experience.

“Have you ever seen these birds?” ” she asks. Three boys shake their heads no.

She tells them how the birds with the orange beak stop guarding the nest, how the males approach their potential mates. Together, they watch a skimmer graze the water with its long mandible and tear off a silver fish.

These experiences, according to Goepper, can trigger an emotional bond between birds and humans. “If there is one opportunity to educate people about Mother Nature, this is it,” she said.

Alana Crawford works quieter.

Using a monocular, she observes the skimmers wearing man-made green leg bracelets and documents their movements for the Audubon Banding Program. This allows researchers to track the migration and lifespan of birds.

“I watched 7B,” Crawford, 21, said. “There is a nest on the edge.”

If someone approaches the pink ribbons enclosing the colony, she pushes them away. Harassing protein skimmers violates federal and state laws.

For the other volunteers, ornithology is in their blood. Stephanie Hall remembers her parents joining Audubon decades ago when she was a child. During stewarding shifts, a thin bird identification book lives in its waterproof bag.

The Ann Arbor native sometimes places a plush faux crow on a “NO PETS ON ISLAND” sign at Three Rooker. She picks up the trash – floats, bottles, beer cans – and counts the days until the ibis chicks fly away.

“If they’re in the trees,” Hall said, pointing upward excitedly, “they can take flight.”

Like other animals, many shorebirds are creatures of habit. Each summer, they seek out sandy areas with enough food to feed the nesting parents.

But all it takes is a drunken visitor, an unconscious bather, or a reckless pet owner letting their puppy run away to disrupt the process.

Stewards try to get shorebirds to give birth, teach their chicks to survive on their own, and then fly away again without a break. The reward for volunteers is to witness one of nature’s rituals.

It’s like watching kids grow up at high speed, says Steponaitis.

The goal

Year after year, Audubon’s stewardship program is growing in popularity, said Short, the shorebird biologist.

Audubon Florida employees eventually created a mailing list, invested in the boat Steponaitis takes to Three Rooker Island, and assigned paid stewards to accompany volunteers on shifts.

“If you sign a petition, you are helping conservation in an indirect way,” said Short. “When you are on the beach, you feel like you are doing something tangible.”

Steponaitis volunteers as a flight attendant because he is worried.

As retirement neared, he and his wife Mara vowed they would never settle in Florida, which seemed like an old age rite for so many people they knew in New England. Then 12 years ago, during a temporary stay in Dunedin, shorebirds captivated Steponaitis.

He was amazed to see them communicate and fly away in the spray. This inspired a change of mind.

After the move, Steponaitis took a Florida naturalist masterclass to learn plant names and monitor coastal wildlife. In still moments, his eyes began to search for the pointed crowns of royal terns.

Now he fears for the feathered flocks. Research and efforts to protect them give hope that some shorebirds may one day drop the list of special concern, but not enough.

The end of his volunteering shifts brings Steponaitis a sense of accomplishment and concern.

He carefully folds his green beach chair and wraps the remains of a sandwich in plastic. Standing again in the gulf, Steponaitis takes one last look at the shorebirds. He boards the ship Audubon.

What will happen to the nests, he wonders, when no one is looking?

This weekend, at least, the crowds were tame. Only a few boaters have docked on the island.

“A slow day,” he thought. “Good for birds.”

When the beach was off-limits to humans, a rare colony of seabirds found a place to nest

© 2021 Tampa Bay Times.
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Quote: Saving Shorebirds, One Trip at a Time (2021, July 9) retrieved July 9, 2021 from

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