Restoring Florida’s Shorebird and Seabird Populations

By Janell Brush

Florida has 1,350 linear miles of ocean coastline and over 8,000 miles of tidal inlets. This equates to a lot of potential nesting, foraging, and roosting habitat for shorebirds and seabirds. These dynamic habitats are declining in quality and quantity and are stressed by human population growth, climate and habitat changes, as well as ecological or human perturbations. The coastal zone is highly sought after for development and tourism because of its aesthetic and recreational values. Consequently, there is little undeveloped beach habitat remaining, and what does remain is often disturbed and degraded to the detriment of coastal species, such as nesting shore- and seabirds, that are dependent on it.

Over the last decade, FWC has worked with Audubon Florida and the Florida Park Service to opportunistically build a network of partners and developed a strategy to maintain shorebird and seabird populations that are resilient to the pressures placed on coastal habitats and wildlife. In 2009 we launched the Florida Shorebird Alliance (FSA), which is organized into regional partnerships that work locally to ensure important shorebird and seabird sites are surveyed, monitored, and managed. The FWC houses key FSA staff who build and coordinate partnerships, manage the Florida Shorebird Database and shorebird monitoring program, and oversee FSA communications. We realized that developing our current program and expanding resources for a dedicated shorebird program would allow us to focus staff and dedicate resources needed to implement meaningful conservation for these species.

As a component to restore shorebird populations, Florida and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) undertook a two-year planning effort that resulted in a business plan, Florida Beach-nesting Bird Plan. The plan was completed in 2016 and includes specific population goals, metrics, strategies, timelines, funding needs, and a conceptual framework. We recently received a grant through the NFWF Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF) to begin implementation of the Florida Beach-nesting Bird Plan.

This project expands upon foundational shorebird conservation work by inaugurating a dedicated shorebird and seabird program for the State of Florida.   FWC (FWRI and HSC) will work with its key partner, Audubon Florida, to continue to recover shorebird populations using five strategies: reduce human disturbance, manage habitat, manage predation, inform management & track outcomes, and improve regulatory coordination. The project area encompasses a variety of habitats used by breeding, wintering, and migrating shorebirds. These habitats include rooftops, sand beaches, emergent flats, dredge spoil islands, marine and freshwater sand bars, oyster reefs, freshwater wetlands, and upland construction and industrial sites.

FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute contributes substantially to the strategies and serves as lead for the effort to inform management and track outcomes. The 4 year project represents Phase 1 of a larger vision and will conclude with a focused review of all program activities to assess programmatic efficacy. This approach will provide the information needed to develop an efficient and effective statewide program, which we hope to fund through a variety of identified funding streams as well as continued short- and long-term GEBF support. By the end of this project FWRI staff will have refined baseline population estimates and trends for 5 focal species (American oystercatcher, black skimmer, least tern, Wilson’s plover, snowy plover), completed threat assessment studies, and developed apredation management database and monitoring framework. This is an exciting time for shorebird and seabird conservation in Florida and with additional resources we hope to continue to move the needle for shorebird conservation.