When we think of the beach, we think of fun in the sun, surf, and sand. Did you consider the beach as a bird’s home? For some birds, the beach sand is a place to rest, build their nest, and raise their young. Birds that you may see nesting on the beaches in northeast Florida are the Willet, the BlackSkimmer, and the Least Tern.
Named for their distinct “will-will-willet” call, willets are shorebirds that can often be seen year-round on Florida’s beaches, salt marshes, and mud flats. They are members of the Sandpiper family and are readily identified by their long legs and bills and “drab” gray appearance. While in flight, however, they reveal a striking black and white wing pattern. There are two sub-species of willets in the United States. The Westen willet is slightly larger and breeds in the western U.S. It migrates to the Eastern U.S. in winter, and is often seen along Florida’s coast during that time. The Eastern willet often migrate to Central and South America during winter. In Florida, both the Eastern and Western willet are often seen alone as they forage for small fish, mollusks, insects, and fiddler crabs. Its long bill is well-adapted for picking small prey from the mud. Willets have also been known to feed on plant material such as grass and seeds. The willet population was threatened by hunting in the late 19th century, but conservation efforts have enabled the willet population to thrive.
In Florida, willets nest near salt marshes and dune vegetation. In Florida, the willet nests between April through August. The female lays 3-5 eggs per year. They are olive-green with brown spots. Both the male and female are instrumental in finding a nest location. Once a site is chosen, the male will usually begin making depressions in the sand or grass. The female will bring in additional vegetation to help conceal the nest.
There is a unique bird under foot. The Black Skimmer loves the beaches of Florida. It nests in Florida every year from April thru September.
It’s hard to miss the adults with their black and white body and bright orange and black bill. The chicks and eggs are hard to see in the sand because of their tan and spotted color. Keep your distance and watch your step. These spectacular birds have adaptations like no other. First, their lower mandible is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to skim its beak in the shallow water and catch fish. The other adaptation is its large pupil feature and vertical slit (just like a cat’s eye). No other bird has this feature. It has webbed feet but can not swim. There are many organizations that help protect this Florida protected endangered bird.
You can help too.
1. Don’t enter roped off areas.
2. Keep pets on a leash.
3. Keep your distance and don’t scare birds.
4. Educate yourself and join a birding club.
I am a snowbird from Michigan and a Florida Naturalist. I wrote in this blog because I care about the wonders of nature. This bird and others that live on the beaches of Florida need your help to survive, even if it’s just to watch your step.
The smallest tern in North America is the Least Tern. It is a distinct bird in its breeding plumage with a black cap, white forehead, and a yellow bill. Like other terns it has pointed wings and a deeply forked tail that enable it to fly, hover, and then dive into the water to catch fish. It breeds in colonies that include other shorebirds. For a small bird, its call is quite loud. In the spring the Least Tern flies “north” from South and Central America to our Florida beaches. Here they chose open sandy beaches for their nests that are near shallow water for feeding. Soon after arriving at the Florida beach, pairs begin to form and the courting male will “woo” a female by offering her a small fish.
After the courtship a pair will start making a nest. The “nest” is made in the sand by the Tern using its feet to scrape out a shallow bowl-like depression. This is called a scrape. Between mid-April to the first of May, one to three eggs will be laid in the scrape. The eggs have blotches of black, brown, and gray that help camouflage them in the sand. Both parents will incubate the eggs and when it is too hot they will soak their belly feathers in water and drip the water onto the eggs to cool them (they do this for the chicks also). If all goes well, the eggs will hatch in about 3 weeks. Several days after hatching the chicks leave the scrape and hide nearby on the beach. It will be another 3 weeks until the chicks are finally able to fly. During this whole time, they are easy prey for predators and at risk of being stepped on by humans.
In Florida the Least Tern is a state-designated threatened species. It is protected under the Florida Endangered and Threatened Species Rule as well as the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The main reason for the Least Terns’ decline in numbers is the loss of quiet sandy beaches. Stronger coastal storms and the exceptionally high tides they bring result in the loss of suitable nesting sites. Factors within our control are the amount of development along the coast bringing increased human interactions on the beach. The Least Terns do not like to be disturbed and when distressed may abandon their nests. Disturbances come in many forms: animals chasing the birds, people walking through groups of birds, or walking too close to an unseen nest. On beaches with actively nesting bird populations, you may see an area roped off to protect the birds, their eggs, and the chicks. We can share the beautiful beaches with these little birds by taking care in where we step:
1. Avoid walking near groups of birds
2. Respect the roped off nesting areas
3. Keep pets on a leash
4. Keep music volume low
The Least Terns thank you.
This blog was written for the North Florida Land Trust by Florida Master Naturalist students:
Chris Perone (Willets)
Bob Battles (The Black Skimmer)
Deborah Swartz (The Least Tern)