photo credit: Rick Weber
This was a great season of birding, despite the radical changes from Hurricane Ian. It certainly felt like the birds changed their distribution patterns this season compared to previous years, but as the numbers show,
the birds were still out there!
The distribution of humans on the landscape is quite different than in previous years, with very limited access for the public to the south end of Fort Myers Beach, almost no homeowners living on the island during most of Winter Stewarding, and a 50% reduction in tourists in Lee County this season.
Bunche Beach felt like it was used less by foraging shorebirds than in previous years but towards the end of the season it seemed the birds were present but had shifted closer to the Sanibel Causeway.
Carlos Beach and the Little Estero Island CWA continue to be vitally important habitat for overwintering shorebirds. The hurricane created an extended mudflat across Carlos Beach that proved very popular with shorebirds. Resting flocks joined together in large numbers in the same places in the Critical Wildlife area as in previous years- a spit of sand and a sandbar in front of the Shamron Condos, and at the southern end of the CWA. The lagoon at the northern end of the CWA was much less vibrant than in previous years, likely due to the stormwater radically changing the chemistry of the water and making it inhospitable to many small prey fish for the time being.
I did some ad-hoc stewarding at the Six Mile Cypress Slough, which from December through February was home to up to 2,800 roosting wading birds in the evenings. I greatly enjoyed sharing the scope with at least twenty or so people who stopped by each time I was at the observation area at the large pond.
I also visited Big Hickory Island several times and anecdotally there is a similar amount of loafing shorebird flocks as in previous years. They were commonly observed in flocks of several hundred on a couple of sand bars offshore during the low winter tides.
I made 13 official stewarding trips this season, including six to Carlos Beach and the CWA, and seven to Bunche Beach. All data was entered into a shared spreadsheet with Audubon Florida for their wintering shorebird database. I greatly appreciated the help of Stewarding Assistant Monica McKenzie, and the help of numerous volunteers who helped record data, identify birds, and count birds.
Impact on People
Volunteers joined me on both routes this season. I recorded 61 volunteering shifts, for an estimated 122 volunteer hours this winter. Together, we educated 50 people, almost evenly split between Carlos and Bunche. Jim Rodenfels was a major player in community education and is an incredibly valuable stewarding companion. Photos shared by volunteers were posted to our Audubon Southwest Florida Facebook page, as well as used to advertise upcoming stewardship and field trip dates.
Impact on Birds
I recorded six disturbances that caused flocks to flush, two from paragliders, two from helicopters, one dog, and one person. We recorded and reported 10 band resights while we were stewarding, including snowy plover, piping plover, American oystercatcher, and black skimmer.
In all, we recorded 41 species and 7,428 birds.
Surprisingly, this is only about 1,000 fewer birds than the previous year, and when evened out for birds counted per trip, I recorded about 100 birds more per trip in 2023 (571) than in 2022 (475). Some rare highlights included a clapper rail in the southern lagoon of the CWA, a laughing gull with genetic change that caused it to have a bright red beak and legs on Carlos Beach, and the recurring presence of a white morph reddish egret on Carlos Beach and in the CWA.
Our top three most common birds this year were sanderlings, western sandpiper, and dunlin, which is the same top three as last year.
It is hard to draw too many conclusions from comparing the two years, but some interesting differences I see are several species seen in 2022 that were absent in 2023, including yellow crowned night heron, roseate spoonbill, gallinule, kingfisher, green heron, and mallards (164). Personally, I attribute the change in distribution of these species to the inundation of the CWA lagoons with salt water, thus radically disrupting their water chemistry, and dramatically reducing the fish and prey species populations.
In the previous 2021/22 Winter season we recorded 48 species, compared to 4this year.
I recorded 215 red knot in 2023, and none in 2022, which I attribute to myself gaining confidence in my red knot identification. We did not record any oystercatcher in 2022 and had over 50 in 2023.
This year gulls became much more common compared to 2022, with laughing gull and herring gull moving up in the ranks substantially. There were also more vultures in 2023, possibly due to the red tide fish kill drawing them to the beaches.
Overall, it was a great season of stewarding, and I am grateful to Audubon Southwest Florida, Jim Rodenfels, Monica McKenzie, and all the wonderful volunteers who make it so fun to be out there.