Bowditch Point Park at the north end of Fort Myers Beach has received some unfamiliar guests on the beachfront.
Least terns, sea birds that are the smallest of the tern species, have decided to nest on a shoreline spot just south of the rock jetty near Bowditch Point, the northernmost part of the island.
Lee County recently posted a roped-off boundary at that site. Bowditch Park is County owned.
Least terns have set up nesting camp at Bowditch Point Park. Please keep your distance from the roped-off area just south of the rock jetty at the island's northern tip.
"Those birds caught everybody in the area by surprise," said Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen, who pointed out its been roughly 20 years since the sea birds have used the Bowditch area as a nesting ground.
"Historically, they used to nest there," Laakkonen said. "It's interesting to have those bird nest out there for the first time in that long."
Both sea birds and shorebirds typically nest on the beachfront on the south end of the island, especially on Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Refuge on the southern tip.
But, due to a replenished beach at Bowditch, thanks to the North Estero Island Nourishment Project that was completed at the beginning of 2012, nesting birds are finding comfort with the large beach area on the north end. The fish-eaters have web feet and dive into the channel area or float along to catch their food.
"We think they are nesting at Bowditch because of the terminal groin and the restoration project gives them a big enough beach to nest on," said Laakkonen. "They have everything they need there. It's a wide spot of beach. It's flat, and there is also a nice pass running by with lots of fish. Space and prey within a close area."
The "small colony" of nesters pose a late start for the least terns.
"Typically, you would expect least terns to begin nesting in May," said Laakkonen. "We are not really sure where these birds came from. There have fledglings (birds that have hatched and are able to fly this season) with them as well as some first-year birds, birds that have just matured enough to nest. It's very unusual that we still have late-nesting birds."
Laakkonen stated the colony may have failed elsewhere or was abandoned. Bird season for shorebirds and sea birds usually ends in late August, but the newcomers will be around through September.
"It takes about 25 to 28 days for these eggs to hatch and another 20 days for a chick to become flight-capable," said Laakkonen. "Then, it takes probably another couple of weeks for these birds to be strong enough to fly and actually migrate with their parents."
Unlike last year when Tropical Storm Debby washed over bird and sea turtle nests, this year has been relatively uneventful from the natural occurrence standpoint.
"(Tropical Storm) Andrea was not a big wash-over event. We lost a few nests, but not like Debby last year when none of the birds re-nested after that wash-over," said Laakkonen.
Laakkonen explained shorebirds walk quite efficiently, while sea birds waddle.
"It's best to call them beach nesting birds because that's exactly what they do," he noted.
While there are only least terns nesting on the north end of the island, the south end has least terns, snowy plovers, Wilson's plovers and baby black skimmers. No public entry is allowed within the roped-off areas.
"Anytime you see a posted bird area, you should keep as far distance as possible from those birds to reduce disturbance," said Laakkonen. "When you walk towards them, they will view you as a predator and do what they do to predators, like mob them, fly around them and dive bomb. The whole time they are doing that while you are looking at the colony, those eggs are basically cooking in the sun. The disturbances will cause those eggs to overheat and die. Those chicks in each egg need their parents to cool them."
Volunteer bird stewards will be around the roped-off areas on weekends to educate beach walkers of the frailties of our feathered friends.
"It's really important that we just need to share the beach with the birds," added Laakkonen.