For many years, I have taken great pleasure in observing and watching over wild birds on our coastal islands. Seabirds and shorebirds nest alone or in colonies, depending on their species, in shallow scrapes. Sandy open beaches, between the high tide line and dune grasses, are their homes, the only places they can nest and continue their kind.
Least terns, black skimmers, snowy and Wilson’s plovers, and American oystercatchers are some of the birds that share our shores. These birds are particularly sensitive to human disturbance since environmental conditions on beaches are already harsh and unpredictable. A single dog passing near a colony of nesting seabirds can cause all the birds to panic and subsequently leave their nests dangerously exposed to the hot boiling sun.
I love to sit quietly on the beach and watch shorebirds go about their lives, being sure to give them plenty of space. On a recent day, I watched a flock that included dozens of Caspian terns intermingled with black skimmers. The sand where they stood was compacted by hundreds of tern and pelican toes. Royal terns were off to themselves. Pairs of laughing gulls mated; a south borne wind lifted their feathers. Sanderlings and a few black-bellied-plovers stepped through the crowd.
On the outskirts of the colony, I spied a single roving snowy plover chick. These tiny birds were hard hit by Hurricane Michael—some scientists estimate we may have lost half or more of the local snowy plovers.
On long spindled legs, the chick investigated the beach all alone, its voice trilling a tiny stream of audible bubbles. He resembled a little marshmallow Easter chick, except covered with gray and buff down, instead of yellow sugar. No tail, no feathers at all, a soft white cowl on the back of neck. I watched him stop to scratch his chin with a naked black foot.
I couldn’t tell if that tiny chick alerted when the skimmers rose and circled, when their light nasal background honking shifted to a louder, more urgent waah waah waah. What and how did the chick know to fear? It could not know, as I did, that it had come highly endangered into a highly endangered world.
The parent plover knew. It flew back from the water’s edge to drive away a slightly larger shorebird, a sanderling, that had ventured too close to the plover chick; I hadn’t thought of a sanderling as a threat. If I was only able to visit the birds once in a great while, I wouldn’t feel the rhythm of their lives, nor witness the coast processing through its intricate seasonal and geological changes. I needed to be with them, seeing for myself what was at stake.
As the adult plover skirmished with the sanderling, its chick took refuge under a small green dune plant; but when the adult returned, the chick bee-lined to its parent, burrowing into the feathers of its breast. The newly hatched plover chick came into its world possessed of a bold life force. Plover chick, plover parent, and every other creature out there on that beach by rising Gulf waters do nothing but fully live their purpose. I wanted to rise up every morning and do the same.
Away ran the plovers, speeding over the sand. I watched the parent rush its chick past a laughing gull standing close by, which seemed smart. Even I knew the laughing gull meant danger. I was left alone with the little bird’s tracks. The creature carried so little weight, its prints were only whispers in the sand. I felt deeply happy to experience a short window into a plover’s life, to sit quietly near the rare birds I loved so much. To witness, be present. This seems to me my sacred profession, to be with the birds and then tell their stories.
Here are some ways all of us can help beach-dwelling shorebirds:
Never enter areas posted with shorebird/seabird signs.
Avoid driving on or beyond the upper beach.
Drive slow enough to avoid running over chicks.
Keep dogs on a leash and away from areas where birds may be nesting.
Keep cats indoors, and do not feed stray cats.
Properly dispose of trash to keep predators away.
Do not fly kites near areas where birds may be nesting.
When birds are aggravated, you are too close.
Susan Cerulean is a writer, a biologist and currently, the President of the Friends of St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Portions of this article were excerpted from her forthcoming book (I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir). Her 2015 book, Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, was awarded a Gold Medal for Florida Nonfiction.