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18500 Murdock Circle
Port Charlotte, FL 33948

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Beach Nesting Birds

A least tern adult feeds its newly hatched chick

Part of the Florida beach experience is enjoying the beautiful seabirds and shorebirds, from elegant white egrets to splendid black skimmers and graceful terns. Beach-goers are fortunate to observe a tremendous variety of birds along undeveloped stretches of beach which are critical to shorebird nesting. These undeveloped stretches of beach provide a place where shorebirds can lay their eggs and raise their young, as they prefer isolated undisturbed areas.

Florida coastline stretches nearly 1,200 statute miles with millions of people living on or near the coast and even more people visiting the beaches to vacation. With the coastline experiencing rapid growth and widespread coastal development, shorebirds and seabirds have few places left to go. Most of the remaining native coastal habitat is confined to public lands found in state, county, and federal parks. In these areas, conservation is a high priority, but the lands are mostly regulated for recreational use. Even with the remaining parcels of protected lands, shorebirds and seabirds are competing for suitable habitat to incubate and raise their young. Human-related conflicts (foot traffic, pets, and pollution) are increasingly impacting resting, foraging, and nesting habitats and behaviors. Due to the decline in undisturbed beaches, nesting shorebirds utilize the same beaches as the public. Repeated disruptions from people and pets can cause the birds to take flight and endanger the survival of the eggs and chicks.


There are currently five recognized species of beach nesting birds observed on Charlotte County beaches:

  • American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates)
  • Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger)
  • Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)
  • Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
  • Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia)

Charlotte County beaches also provide critical habitat to eleven listed species, including:

  • American Kestral (Falco sparverius)
  • American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates)
  • Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger)
  • Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
  • Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)
  • Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)
  • Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
  • Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)
  • Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)
  • Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
  • Tri-colored Heron (Egretta tricolor)

Common observations also include species such as the Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis); Royal Tern (Thalasseus maxima) Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla); Red Knot (Calidris canutus) Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) and Sanderling (Calidris alba).

Overall, Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches provide nesting habitats for approximately twenty species of shorebirds and seabirds, including many species listed as Species of Special Concern (SSC), Threatened (T), or Endangered (E) under the State and Federal Endangered Species Laws. Over 80 other coastal and wading species are observed along our waterways throughout the year. All shorebirds and seabirds are protected under the Migratory Treaty Act.


Beach nesting birds depend on wide open beaches and dunes where they can build shallow depressions, called scrapes, to lay their eggs and raise young. Some nests are placed just above the high tide line in shells or pebbles. Due to habitat loss, a very small percentage of black skimmers and least terns have adapted to nest on gravel roofs. Additional information on rooftop nesting can be found at the Florida Shorebird Alliance.


Shorebirds feed from the shoreline. They prefer to eat aquatic invertebrates, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They are often found foraging in the wrack line or along the waters edge where food is abundant. Snowy Plovers feed on aquatic invertebrates, beetles, flies, small mollusks, and seeds. Oystercatchers get their name from their habit of snatching oysters from slightly open shells. They also use their powerful bills to open mollusks and to sort through heavy shells in search of food. Oystercatchers eat oysters, clams, barnacles, starfish, crabs, jellyfish, limpets, chitons, marine worms, and other invertebrates. The Wilson’s plover feeds on tidal mudflats and sandy beaches, where marine invertebrates are abundant. Fiddler crabs are a favorite food, but a wide variety of other invertebrates are also eaten (Howell).

Seabirds feed from the water. They generally catch their food by flying overhead and swooping down when they see something they prefer. Food sources consist of fish, shrimp, and other small organisms near the surface of the water column. The diet of the Least Tern consists primarily of fish, but shrimp and marine worms are occasionally consumed (Howell 1932). Black skimmers “skim” the surface of the water with black-tipped bright red bills. The lower half of the bill is longer than the upper, allowing it to cut through the water and dip down to grab small fish encountered near the surface.


The reproduction period for beach nesting birds runs from February to September. Charlotte County beaches provide nesting habitats both for shorebirds and seabirds which nest differently from each other. Shorebirds nest in solitary; examples of these are the American Oystercatcher, Snowy Plover, and Wilson's Plover. Solitary nesters are more inconspicuous about where they choose to nest. Nesting alone allows them to keep their nest hidden from predators; they are well camouflaged and often use patches of vegetation to keep themselves hidden. This makes solitary nests much more difficult to locate.

American Oystercatchers mating season runs from February through July. Females typically lay two to four buff-colored eggs with light and dark brown spots and other marks, about 2 by 1.5 inches (5 by 3.8 cm). The chicks can run within 24 hours of hatching, but it takes up to 60 days for their beaks to become strong enough to pry open their own bivalves. The young birds may remain with their parents for up to six months. American Oystercatchers can live ten years or longer. Both parents incubate the eggs and to disguise the speckled eggs, the adults add broken shells or pebbles to the nests. Oystercatchers are very protective of their young, to distract predators adult birds will fake an injury to attract attention away from the nest or pretend to brood where there is no nest. Oystercatchers sometimes give such extensive care to their young that the adults starve (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department - June 2, 2009).

The Snowy and Wilson's Plovers nesting season extends from early March through late September and generally begins earlier in more southerly latitudes. Fledglings, young that has reached flying age, of late-season broods may extend into the third week of September throughout the breeding range. Nests typically occur in flat, open areas with sandy or saline substrates. Vegetation and driftwood are usually sparse or absent. The typical clutch size is three eggs but can range from two up to six eggs. Camoflauge is extremely important for plover suvival. Snowy plovers generally choose to nest on beaches with clean whiter sands where they, their eggs, and their offspring blend in perfectly to the surroundings. Wilson's plovers tend to nest near mudflats and lagoons where they can stay hidden among the darker sand and thicker vegetation clumps.

During plover courtship, males perform ritualized nest-scraping displays that involve drooping their wings, pattering their feet, and spreading and lowering their tails in front of females. Once paired, a male makes several nest scrapes, commonly near a piece of driftwood, clump of grass, or some other noticeable object. The female selects one nest scrape where she typically lays her eggs. The female plover incubates by night and the male incubates by day for about 25 days until hatching occurs. Plover chicks leave the nest within hours after hatching to search for food. They are not able to fly for approximately four weeks after hatching, during which time they are especially vulnerable to predation. Adult plovers do not feed their chicks, but lead them to suitable feeding areas while using distracting displays to lure predators and people away from the chicks. Adult plovers signal the chicks to crouch, with calls, as another way to protect them. They may also lead chicks, especially larger ones, away from predators. Most chick mortality occurs within six days after hatching (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Seabirds nest in colonies; these include Least Terns and Black Skimmers. They gather and nest in large groups on open areas of the beach. Colonies are easier to identify as the birds will congregate in numbers and do not rely on camoflauge for protection. Instead, they use their large numbers to their advantage to swarm away predators when actively defending their young.

Black Skimmers (SSC) are highly social birds, flocking outside the breeding season, and nesting in colonies on beaches and islands, often with aggressive gulls and terns that offer protection from predators. Colony sizes are highly variable, ranging from single pairs to many thousands on the Gulf Coast. The skimmer's nest is a shallow scrape on an open beach, shell bank, sandbar, and occasionally, a gravel roof. The three to five white, buff, or blue-green eggs, heavily marked with brown, are perfectly camouflaged on the beach and hatch in about three weeks. The chicks are fed by both parents, eating regurgitated fish and crustaceans dropped on the ground. Since chicks begin life with mandibles of the same length, they are able to retrieve this food; the lower mandible begins to elongate when chicks are nearly grown. Their unusual lower mandible grows faster than the upper mandible to compensate for the added wear received from skimming the water for prey. Parent skimmers defending nests may swoop low at intruders, uttering sharp, barking cries. As chicks soon begin to wander from the nest, they may hide when danger threatens by scratching out hollows in the sand. They have been known to kick up sand to partially cover themselves from view; this behavior also works as a cooling method when shade is scarce. The young birds begin to fly in about 24 days (National Audubon Society, Inc.).

Least Tern males and females construct several scrapes, which are formed by sitting on the substrate and kicking their feet while rotating their bodies. Ultimately, the female chooses the scrape that will become the nest. Within two days of nest construction, two or three eggs colored similar to the ground (beige to light olive-brown hues, with brown or black splotches) are laid. There is great variation within clutches in respect to the number, size, and spotting of the eggs. Although both parents care for the eggs during the incubation period, females do more than their share. During excessively hot weather, parents may soak their bellies in water and drip it onto the eggs, or chicks, as a method of cooling them. The young are fairly mobile, able to walk and swim, soon after hatching. At two days of age, the young are capable of leaving the nest, but they will generally remain within the confines of their nesting colony until they reach flight capabilities. The coloring of their down varies considerably within and among broods, from a “dry sand,” tan color to a “wet sand,” spotted or streaked, camouflage appearance. Both parents feed the young and will travel four or more miles from their breeding colonies to find the small fish that make up the major part of their diet. The young experience their first flight at about 20 days of age, but stay with their parents until fall migration. During the late summer, before migrating south, adults and young congregate at prime fishing sites along waterways then move south in small, loose groups following major rivers and coasts, feeding along the way. Breeding season runs from March through August (Smithsonian Zoological Park).


Beaches are a constant source of energy and movement. Shorebird nesting sites are subject to washout by high tides, rogue waves or boat wakes. Tropical storms bringing high water and tides, rain, erosion, and wind can wipe out entire colonies of nests. Predators such as raccoon, fox, armadillo, coyote or skunk may force adults to abandon nesting sites. Eggs and hatchlings also are threatened by aerial predators such as Fish Crows or Laughing Gulls. Negative impacts from domesticated pets have become more apparent in recent years. For additional information on how pets can impact nesting please refer to our Beach Nesting Species brochure.

Beach nesting birds guard and protect their eggs and young. When disturbed, solitary nesters may display a “broken wing act” to lure people and predators away from the nest or young. Colonial nesters will protect their nests and young by calling out in protest, diving at people and predators, and even defecating on intruders. When beach nesting birds are flushed off their nests, the eggs and chicks are exposed to temperature extremes, predators, and risk being stepped on. During these incidents, energy is spent protecting eggs and chicks, instead of being used to incubate eggs or raise young.

Isolated, undisturbed stretches of beach are critical to shorebird nesting. Due to the decline in undisturbed beaches, nesting shorebirds are utilizing the same beaches as the public. By far the most important cause of outright nesting failure is disturbance by people. Many birds require a buffer zone during breeding season. Year after year, repeated human intrusion at nesting colony sites has caused steep declines in some populations.

Protection Measures

Protecting shorebirds and seabirds in Florida is no small task. Realizing that the conservation and management of these species is beyond the reach of any one agency or organization, Charlotte County staff and volunteers, along with local and regional partnerships, maintain collaborative efforts to educate the general public and protect nesting sites. Each year, a portion of our beaches, known as historical nesting sites, are roped and posted to promote successful nesting. Nest sites outside the roped area, are posted once a nest is discovered. Monitors walk the beaches regularly to observe, document nesting activity, and to ensure important sites within their respective areas are adequately protected. Shorebird Stewards monitor nesting activity and conduct educational outreach informing the general public about shorebird nesting activity. These efforts have been created in an effort to make the most of our available resources and promote safe nesting.

To aid in protecting shorebirds and seabirds, Charlotte County provides:
  • Public education and outreach programs
  • Manages shorebird nesting sites while ensuring recreational opportunities
  • Coordinates data recieved through the Shorebird Steward program

Management Plan Objectives

All Florida native birds are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and are also protected under state law, and may not be trapped or killed without federal permits.

Light Pollution

Migratory birds have problems with light pollution. Additional information about this subject can be found at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

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