The Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center’s lobby was overflowing, packed tight with visitors who sat shoulder to shoulder and huddled in the building’s narrow hallway, peaking their heads through the doorways to catch a glimpse of the projections on the far wall.
Several helped themselves to Valentine’s Day themed refreshments, waiting intently for the presentation to begin.
Volunteers at the Sea Turtle Center said it was one of the largest turnouts they had ever seen at their annual Lovebirds and Shorebirds event. They pulled out additional chairs to accommodate the crowd.
They had all come together to celebrate the beginning of shorebird nesting season, which started on Feb. 15 in Gulf County. And they were eager to hear from an assembled group of experts about their role in protecting several of the Gulf Coast’s endangered or threatened species.
“These are the birds that are of special importance to us and the work that we do here in the state of Florida,” said Ricky Cassell, a representative from the Audubon Society and the event’s first speaker “And the reason for that is because many of these species, their population numbers have declined over the years, and that’s due to loss of habitat and increase in disturbance.”
“There are just a lot more activities and people on the coast, and these bids have fewer and fewer places to go.”
Cassell, a biologist who specializes in Northwest Florida’s shorebirds, showed slides of nests and breeding grounds, alerting the crowd of what to be on the lookout for and answering questions as they arose.
He went on to indicate Audubon’s five focal species of shorebirds – the Wilson’s plover, the least tern, the snowy plover, the American oyster catcher and the black skimmer – and each species’ breeding and nesting behaviors.
The program went on to feature expert presentations from Lynda White, who talked about Bald Eagles, and Janna Reinhart, who gave the audience a look at some of the local birds she regularly observes.
Shorebird nesting season, which will run through Sept. 1, will feature heightened protections over important nesting sites, including posted signage in many instances.
To best protect the nesting shorebirds, the event’s experts recommended that beach-goers never enter areas posted with shorebird or seabird signs, avoid driving on the beach wrack and on or beyond the upper beach, 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 and not fly kites near areas where birds may be nesting.