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Shorebirds need dunes to nest, but beachgoers are walking over them due to Sally damage

Emma Kennedy
 
| Pensacola News Journal

Shorebirds need sandy beach dunes to protect their nests from predators each summer, but after Hurricane Sally destroyed most beach crossovers on Perdido Key, officials are worried about beachgoers walking over the dunes and potentially crushing the endangered species’ eggs.

Perdido Key was among the most significantly damaged portions of the Panhandle after Hurricane Sally ravaged the region in September. The community still has many blue-tarped roofs, washed-out roads and downed fences, even without counting the extensive property damage to some homes and businesses.

“I don’t think hardly a structure out here escaped damage,” Perdido Key Association President Charles Krupnick said. “We got hit more badly than I think many people appreciate.”

By the way: Pensacola public waterfront areas damaged by Hurricane Sally may not reopen until summer

Krupnick said on daily walks, he has seeing flattened sand dunes and residents accessing public beaches by parking illegally and crossing what’s left of the dunes. Much of the area’s public beach accesses — namely at Gulf Islands National Seashore and Johnson Beach — remain closed because of significant damage.

The issue is compounded for the small birds trying to nest because not only are the boardwalks damaged, forcing beachgoers to walk over the dunes, but public access closures increase the number of people using those dunes as well.

“The one thing about these birds — seabirds or shorebirds — is that they lay their eggs right on the sand and they’re camouflaged, so you aren’t going to see these eggs but you’ll step on them,” said Caroline Stahala, the Western Panhandle shorebird program manager at the Audubon Society. “We’re not talking about pigeons here, they’re state listed species. … There’s a reason those signs are there.”

Stahala is referring to conservationists’ and officials’ efforts to curtail damage to the nesting sites by placing temporary signs around known nests, erecting signs at beach access points and in some cases changing speed limits to ensure the birds aren’t hit in heavily trafficked areas.

The consequence of stepping on an egg can be catastrophic for the species, Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Executive Director Crystie Baker said.

Sea turtle nests: Sea turtles laid 28 nests this season in Escambia County. Only one full nest survived.

Shorebirds: Baby shorebirds have taken over 2 parking lots on Gulf Islands. They won’t reopen for now.

“If we stomp on the one nest with their one egg that year, for example, then we’ve lost an entire reproductive cycle,” she said. “The dunes do so much for us as people in mitigating hurricane damage and flooding, it’s amazing, but as far as wildlife goes, it’s such a unique habitat that really can’t be replicated somewhere else.”

And the issue isn’t the dunes so much as it’s the people on them. Stahala said after Hurricane Michael in 2018, the shorebirds and other animals in the St. Joe Peninsula had a banner year because the freshly swept sand gave them a strong habitat to nest. The same could happen on Pensacola and Navarre beaches this year, she said, as those nesting areas had some similar impacts from Sally and the pandemic has made traffic more sporadic, allowing the animals a little more freedom to nest.

But farther along the shoreline in Perdido Key, the boardwalk damage has spelled a greater unknown for the nesting season.

Gulf Islands National Seashore spokeswoman Susan Teel said pedestrians using dunes is damaging to both dune habitat regrowth and the shorebirds.

“Without boardwalks and fencing to channel foot traffic, it has become apparent that pedestrians and cyclists are crossing from Johnson Beach Road to the north shoreline and south shoreline and beach along the entire stretch of Johnson Beach Road, leaving the entire habitat scattered with footprints and disturbance,” she said in a statement.

There is not yet a date for when the damaged infrastructure can be replaced, or when the roads will reopen in the area to better disperse the residents and tourists trying to use the beach.

In addition to Hurricane Sally, the height of the pandemic aligning with the 2020 shorebird season meant the birds in some cases nested in places they traditionally haven’t, such as the newly vacant parking lots at the beaches.

Stahala doesn’t have jurisdiction over tracking shorebird season in Perdido Key, but said in general, she and other agencies are making an even stronger push to educate the public about the importance of leaving those habitats undisturbed following the pandemic and hurricane damage.

“We educate beachgoers as we see them, we talk to people about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and hopefully when they learn more about these birds they’ll see all they’re trying to do is raise their families out there,” she said.  

Stahala urged anyone visiting the beach to take notice of signage, walk only in designated areas and be cognizant of visible activity such as mating behaviors that mean there could be nests and eggs around.

Emma Kennedy can be reached at ekennedy@pnj.com or 850-480-6979.

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