Ricky Cassell planted his tripod in the sand, taking a few minutes to level his scope, then peering through the sight, slowly panning and fuucsing until he found what he was looking for.
“Red green, red yellow, BP,” he read. “That’s Big Poppa.”
Then, moving in a quick spurt, the bird hopped out of the site’s view.
Cassell, a Panhandle stewardship coordinator for Audubon Florida, has observed the Wilson’s Plover in the area before, endearingly giving the bird a nickname based off of the initials in his tag.
“That bird has been coming here since 2014,” Cassell said, taking note of the spotting in a small moleskine notebook. “So we know he’s more than nine years old.”
Plovers have high site fidelity, he said, meaning they will return to the same nesting site every year as long as the habitat still exists and is still safe.
But with human encroachment, Cassell said, it can be difficult for these birds to find places to nest. And even if there is enough available habitat, some human behaviors on the beach can disrupt the birds’ nests or feeding efforts.
“Many shorebirds will try to distract something they view as a predator and lure it away from their nest,” said Cassell, “meaning they might be off of their nests for extended periods of time.”
“That leaves the eggs vulnerable to predators, and, during warmer months, the eggs can cook in the sun if left uncovered for too long.”
As beach-goers walked by, Cassell, who was wearing a shirt that read “ask me about the birds,” would flag them down, inviting them to take a closer look at the shorebirds through his scope.
It’s part of an effort through Audobon to increase awareness of nesting shorebirds by engaging directly with and educating the public.
Big Poppa was there with a female, scoping out Cape San Blas’s dunes for the perfect spot to create his scrape – or nest. It can take them weeks to select the right spot, Cassell said. And they will move from location to location until mid-late April, deciding where they want to lay their eggs.
“Normally when people think of a bird’s nest, they think of twigs and sticks in a tree,” Cassell said to a man who stopped by to listen. “But shorebirds actually just make a little hole in the sand and lay their eggs in that.”
Cassell and other Adubon employees and volunteers frequently survey the Eglin Air Force Base property on Cape San Blas during shorebird nesting season, as well as properties in the State Park, along Tyndall Air Force Base and other areas in the panhandle.
They take count of the number of birds they see on any given day, the types of birds, any discovered nests, how birds are behaning and whether any of the birds are federally banded, like Big Poppa.
Cassell had observed many other birds that afternoon – red knots, which travel more than 20,000 miles a year, and sandwich terns, with little yellow tips on their beaks, among them.
But Wilson’s plovers are Cassell’s favorite birds. He had been hoping to spot some that day.
“When you get to observe them, and you see their personalities, you’ll see that they’re really cool birds,” he said.
Wilson’s plovers are one of five species of endangered or threatened shorebird that Audubon calls their focal species – also including the least tern, the snowy plover, the American oyster catcher and the black skimmer.
To best protect the nesting shorebirds, Cassell and other Audubon experts recommend 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.
Audubon is in need of volunteer beach stewards, who will help educate the public about shorebird behaviors and how best to support the endangered species through coordinated outreach efforts. Those interested in volunteering can visit https://fl.audubon.org/get-involved for more information.