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2023 - 2024 Winter Stewarding Report

The Shorebird Stewardship program exemplifies the mission of Audubon Southwest Florida by bringing environmental education to the beaches during the critical overwintering season of the iconic shorebirds that make Southwest Florida so special.

Since 2011, shorebird stewards have built community and connected people to nature by working with dedicated volunteers to educate the public about the shorebirds they see, why they are important to the ecosystems of SWFL, and what they can do to help the birds.

Photo: Ella Brown

Shorebird populations have declined by 50% since 1974, making it vitally important that we educate the public about these species and how to respect them. In addition to education, stewards collect important community science information, adding to a vitally important long-term database used by scientists and decision makers.

Data Collection

This year we visited new stewardship sites, replacing Carlos Beach and the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area with Lovers Key State Park and Bowditch Point Park, in addition to Bunche Beach. This resulted in changes to the number and diversity of the birds we recorded. We also added additional months of stewardship, running from October to March. Shorebird Steward Robin Serne was joined from January thru March by an assistant, well-respected local birder and FGCU Ornithology Club President Edwin Wilke.

Photo: Edwin Wilke

We made twenty-one official stewarding trips this season, including three to Carlos Beach and the CWA, thirteen to Bunche Beach, four to Lovers Key, and two to Bowditch Point Park. All data was entered into a spreadsheet shared with Audubon Florida for the wintering shorebird database. I greatly appreciated the help of all the volunteers who helped record data, identify birds, document, and count birds.

Impact on People

Volunteers logged 198 volunteering shifts, equivalent to approximately 594 volunteer hours. Together, we educated 156 people. As always, Jim Rodenfels is a major player in community education and is an incredibly valuable stewarding companion. Photos shared by volunteers were posted to our Audubon of Southwest Florida Facebook page, used to advertise upcoming stewardship and field trip dates, and used to aid in correctly identifying banded birds.

Impact on Birds

We recorded twelve disturbances that caused flocks to flush. Most notably, the mudflat at the south end of Lovers Key, where the highest concentration of shorebirds are found, is also the highest disturbance area, with events recorded on every visit, ranging from off-leash dogs, kayakers, and people. At Bunche Beach, the shorebirds seemed to prefer feeding on the far side of the pass, out of the reach of most people, but occasional disturbances from children, kayakers, shellers, and fishermen were recorded.

We reported many band resights, including 1 snowy plover, 13 piping plovers, 3 royal terns, and 10 black skimmers.

In all, we recorded 61 species and 8,854 birds.

Photo: Sabine Vandenhende

Surprisingly, this is only about 1,000 more birds than the previous year, despite nearly doubling the length of the shorebird stewardship season. When evened out for birds counted per trip, I recorded about 150 fewer birds per trip in 2024 (421) than in 2023 (571), and fewer than in 2022 (475).

Some of this change is due to the difference in stewardship location. Carlos Beach and the Little Estero Island CWA had massive flocks of small shorebirds during the winter season in previous years, and we were unable to access those locations for various reasons, including construction on the beach in that area.

Some rare highlights included a common loon, mergansers, yellowlegs, avocets, a pied-

billed grebe, swallow-tailed kites, whimbrel, and avocets. Seeing so many banded piping

plovers, many of them observed repeatedly over the season, was another special highlight this year.

Our top three most common birds this year were sandwich terns, blackskimmers, and western sandpipers--a divergence from the previous two years, where our top birds were sanderlings, western sandpiper, and dunlin. Again, this is likely due to the

change in stewardship locations. We did not count large flocks of resting sanderlings, sandpipers, and dunlin on Carlos Beach this year; instead we saw large flocks of skimmers on the sandbar south of Lovers Key and occasionally at Bunche Beach.

It is hard to draw too many conclusions from comparing this season with the previous years, but some interesting differences are several species seen this year that were absent in 2023, including belted kingfisher, black-crowned night heron, blue-winged teal, cattle egret, Caspian tern, common loon, common tern, mergansers, green heron, magnificent frigatebird, mottled ducks, grebe, kites, and whimbrel. Some of this difference is due to Edwin’s fantastic identification skills in species I was less familiar with, such as the fly-by duck sightings and the mixed flocks of terns.

Gulls were a lot less common this year, with only 550 gulls in 2024 (laughing, herring, and ring-billed combined), down by over 1,000 compared to 2023 (1,604). We saw far fewer dunlin, great egret, red knot, royal tern, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, and snowy plover.

Conversely, in 2024 we counted more snowy egret, short-billed dowitcher, piping plover, marbled godwit, white pelican, and American oystercatcher.

Photo: Jim Rodenfels

Overall, it was a great season of stewarding, and I am grateful to Audubon of Southwest Florida, Jim Rodenfels, Edwin Wilke, and all the wonderful volunteers who make it so fun to be out there.

Robin Serne

April 2024


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