Share the Shore with Beach-nesting Birds and their Young

A least tern feeds a fish to his young while the mate watches and broods another chick under her wing. 1200mm, 1/1000, f/8, 1/3 EV, ISO 250 © Mary Lundeberg
A least tern feeds a fish to his young while the mate watches and broods another chick under her wing. 1200mm, 1/1000, f/8, 1/3 EV, ISO 250 © Mary Lundeberg

By Mary Lundeberg

When I received a 2020 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant from the NANPA Foundation, I was both excited about using images to conserve threatened seabirds and shorebirds, and scared. How could I stay safe working with schools, and policymakers during a pandemic? Would libraries, nature festivals, and exhibits remain closed?  What I wanted to do was to use images to create awareness of beach-nesting birds, and encourage people to conserve them, and protect their habitat. I’d also hoped to raise awareness of problems shorebirds face, such as human disturbance, habitat loss, predation, climate change, red tide, and plastic pollution. Through my work as a bird steward and photographer, I recognized that some of the threats beach-nesting birds face are caused by people who unknowingly disturb them, so I envisioned educating teachers, students, beachgoers, and policymakers about these threatened species. I hoped that through environmental education, we might be able to raise a generation of people who care about the wildlife around them and respect them. My plan involved youth helping to solve the human disturbance problem through art and messages to the community.

Contest winner Andrew Dame's sign is posted at a bird nesting area in Florida. This year we have had fewer dogs. © Mary Lundeberg
Contest winner Andrew Dame’s sign is posted at a bird nesting area in Florida. This year we have had fewer dogs. © Mary Lundeberg
Editor’s note: Applications for the next Philip Hyde Conservation Grant are being accepted now through October 29, 2021. Get all the details and learn more about past grant winners on the NANPA Foundation website.

Youth Art Can Help Wildlife

“Share the beach.” “Save our terns! Or they may stop ‘tern’-ing up.” Creativity soared when 300 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students in Florida created signs to educate beachgoers about threatened birds nesting on the beach, drawing inspiration from the images on my website gallery of beach-nesting birds.

Many students adopted the voices of the birds when creating such signs as “Dogs scare me. Please leave them at home” and “Put your trash in the can, not our sand.” Others showed they connected with the birds through messages such as “They have families too.”

During the weeks I taught the classes, I was also stewarding the birds and finding nests with eggs outside the roped areas. Images of their camouflaged eggs made an impression on the students, and their signs urged beachgoers to watch their step.

A black skimmer offers a fish to a young chick already fed. Black skimmers often bring fish that looks too large for a young chick to eat. Taken with a telephoto lens (1200mm), 1/500 at f8, +2/3 EV, ISO 640. © Mary Lundeberg
A black skimmer offers a fish to a young chick already fed. Black skimmers often bring fish that looks too large for a young chick to eat. Taken with a telephoto lens (1200mm), 1/500 at f8, +2/3 EV, ISO 640. © Mary Lundeberg

Involving the Community

Selecting only 10 signs to print on metal challenged the committee, which consisted of Rachel Baker, science coordinator of Englewood Elementary School; Linda Soderquist, artist, former teacher and the Venice Area Audubon Society’s school coordinator; and me. We chose 10 signs to be printed on metal, 25 signs for the local library to exhibit, and 10 signs for the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse & Museum. The contest winners were called out of their classes during the last week of school to receive a Certificate of Creativity award for the Beach-nesting Bird Sign Contest, signed by their teachers and me. The certificates were handed to them by Principal Mark Grossenbacher in an outdoor ceremony on the school’s lawn. The selected youth signs were combined with a footer, printed on metal and placed in the roped bird area by Florida Wildlife Commission Shorebird Biologist Tyson Dallas and me. Two local newspapers published articles about the project and later published a second article about the dangers of fireworks for beach-nesting birds.

A snowy plover forages along the shore at dawn in Sarasota county, FL. Canon 1DX III, 600mm lens, 1/800, f/4, ISO 1000, Gitzo tripod © Mary Lundeberg
A snowy plover forages along the shore at dawn in Sarasota county, FL. Canon 1DX III, 600mm lens, 1/800, f/4, ISO 1000, Gitzo tripod © Mary Lundeberg

Creating a Stewardship Ethic

Although youngsters in Florida learn about sea turtles as part of their curriculum, information on threatened beach-nesting birds has been missing. Thanks to the support of the NANPA Foundation, that is changing. Rachel Baker said, “I thoroughly enjoyed learning about and teaching about the beach-nesting birds in our own backyard. My students and I were unaware and are so thankful to Mary Lundeberg for educating us all! I’m so proud of my students and their work.”

Educating young students about the real-life problem of humans, dogs and cats disturbing birds that nest on the beach and encouraging them to help save the birds through signage engages them in conservation. Rachel, Mark and I expressed our gratitude to the contest winners for their creative, helpful messages to beachgoers. The young are our future. If we can encourage them to care about critters and conservation, we can be hopeful.

A black skimmer chick rests in the shade of a youth sign. Cellphone photograph taken by Carrie Dill, intern for the county, at 11:40 on July 9, 2021.
A black skimmer chick rests in the shade of a youth sign. Cellphone photograph taken by Carrie Dill, intern for the county, at 11:40 on July 9, 2021.

Youth-generated Signs Are Welcoming and Engaging

In ten years of volunteer work as a steward for beach-nesting birds, I have never witnessed anyone taking a photograph of a threatened-bird sign until this year. This week, the county posted a photograph of a black skimmer chick resting in the shade of a youth sign that read, “This is my home.”

The Philip Hyde Conservation Grant opened doors to the Sarasota school system. But educating youth about beach-nesting birds during a pandemic presented challenges. Fortunately, I was allowed to deliver books, markers, art paper and a thumb drive for both the science and language arts curricula, even though the Sarasota school system prohibited all visitors to the school. I collaborated with Science Coordinator Rachel Baker, using Zoom to teach 12 classes about threatened beach-nesting birds. I was amazed at her skill in engaging both online and in-class groups of students. I provided a thumb drive with a link to my website gallery of beach-nesting birds, a PDF of my book A Tale of a Tern, a test of prior knowledge, an announcement of the Share the Shore youth sign contest, and a PowerPoint providing images and information about threatened beach-nesting birds. We offered advice on language arts activities, how to draw birds, a rubric for judging the sign contest posters, and helpful resources from the Florida Shorebird Alliance and Florida State Parks.

Snowy plover chicks race along the wrack line feeding themselves as soon as they are born, while their parents stand guard, ready to chase away predators. 1/500, f/10, ISO 160, Canon R5, RF 100-500 with 1.4 extender. © Mary Lundeberg
Snowy plover chicks race along the wrack line feeding themselves as soon as they are born, while their parents stand guard, ready to chase away predators. 1/500, f/10, ISO 160, Canon R5, RF 100-500 with 1.4 extender. © Mary Lundeberg

Videos on YouTube Reach a Wide Audience

Thanks to the urging of the NANPA Foundation, I created a short YouTube video called “Share the Shore” to explain the project. Both teachers and students used the video along with a YouTube video reading of A Tale of a Tern as the foundation for learning about sharing the shore with beach-nesting birds and their young. The Barrier Island Parks Society, the Venice Area Audubon Society and the Peace River Audubon Society shared a link to the video and the book on their websites and/or Facebook pages. Bird stewards in New Jersey and in South Carolina have thanked me for these videos.

Black skimmers fly over a bay at sunrise in Florida. © Mary Lundeberg
Black skimmers fly over a bay at sunrise in Florida. © Mary Lundeberg

When Possible, Accentuate the Positive

Prior to working with Rachel Baker, and after I was vaccinated, I piloted a lesson with youngsters attending an afterschool enrichment program through the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. All of them created signs about not littering at the beach (perhaps because one of the chicks in A Tale of a Tern dies from eating leftover balloon fragments). I realized that we need to stress positive messages more than negative ones such as “Don’t do this or that.” Let people see the benefits of what they do to help our wildlife.

Least terns shade and protect downy chicks under their wings for the first few days. This tern has another chick under her wing as well as the chick in front. telephoto lens plus extender (1200 mm), 1/2000, f/8, ISO 500, © Mary Lundeberg
Least terns shade and protect downy chicks under their wings for the first few days. This tern has another chick under her wing as well as the chick in front. telephoto lens plus extender (1200 mm), 1/2000, f/8, ISO 500, © Mary Lundeberg

Beach-nesting Shorebirds and Seabirds Are in Trouble

In addition to human disturbances, beach-nesting birds are threatened by habitat loss, dogs, plastic pollution, water pollution, climate change, overfishing, red tide, fireworks and predators—some of them, such as gulls, feral cats and crows, brought in by the food that humans discard. Most of the least terns in Florida now nest on gravel rooftops rather than beaches. According to Science, shorebirds have declined by almost 40%, and the American Bird Conservancy states that “beach-nesting birds are among the most threatened of all migratory birds.” Threatened seabirds protected in Florida include black skimmers and least terns. Threatened shorebirds include snowy plovers and American oystercatchers.  Wilson’s plovers are listed as a species of greatest conservation need.

All of these birds are fun to photograph, and I use telephoto lenses and keep my distance so as not to disturb them. Snowy plovers, American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers are solitary nesters, and like to hide in vegetation, so it can be a challenge to find them. Snowy plover chicks are adorable puffballs, and they race around the dunes foraging the day they are born. Solitary nesters benefit from being near a colony of seabirds, such as least terns or black skimmers, which chase predators away. Least terns migrate from South America to nest on our shores. Before they mate the male offers a fish to the female, and if she takes it…they’re ready to bond. They are fiercely protective parents, both seen and heard as they divebomb anyone they perceive to be a threat, including other terns. Least terns are expert divers with long wings meant for migration and fast turns. These diminutive terns are a challenge to photograph, and I try to use at least 1/2,000 of a second shutter speed for flight images. Black skimmers skim the surface of the water for prey, and when they catch something, they flip their head. Their skimming and their flight are fast and challenging. 

A flying least tern carries a fish for his family in his bill. 500mm, 1/2000, f/8, 1/3 EV, ISO 2500 © Mary Lundeberg
A least tern carries a fish for his family in his bill. 500mm, 1/2000, f/8, 1/3 EV, ISO 2500 © Mary Lundeberg

Photographing Shorebirds

I love the life, energy, and motion of the shore, as well as the backdrop of skies, sand, and seascapes for images of shorebirds. As a wildlife photographer, I have studied the behaviors of shorebirds, so I know what to expect, and I encourage you to become involved with local conservation groups or Audubon societies to learn more about species you wish to photograph.

If you are photographing nesting birds, watch their behaviors to avoid stressing them, and limit your time to 30 minutes or less. Untended eggs or chicks exposed to the hot sun in Florida can fry. If you flush the parents, gulls and crows may steal eggs and chicks. Please respect roped areas, and even if you stay outside the ropes, you may still be too close to the nesting birds. If a parent flies toward you, back up or leave. Birds don’t read the signs and frequently nest outside roped areas, so walk in the wet sand when possible. Please give birds space to raise their young.

  • An American oystercatcher flips a seahorse into its bill as it forages for food in a shallow bay. Image taken from a boat, handheld, 1/2000, f/11, ISO 1,000, RF800mm, Canon R5 © Mary Lundeberg

The variety of birds changes with the seasons. Migration and nesting cycles are different for each species, although all beach-nesting birds in Florida nest in the spring/summer months. The golden hour is best, and I prefer mornings, which are cooler and less crowded than evenings (which frequently bring thunderstorms). Most photographers prefer the sun at their back, but the beach provides great backlighting options because of the reflectivity of the sand and water. Backlighting can provide dramatic images of chick’s downy feathers.

Stand back and take some time to observe the birds. Move slowly, to give birds time to get used to you. If you are low to the ground, you will be less threatening to the birds and be able to capture more intimate eye-level perspectives. Increase exposure compensation (+1/3 to +2/3) to adjust for the brightness of the sand. Pay attention to the moment. Sand and surf can damage your equipment. I keep my gear in a camera bag when not using it, and I bring plenty of lens cloths and a pad or small towel to kneel on. If I am sitting quietly on the ground, the birds ignore me.

Sign reading "Your Foot, Their Life" in dune near beach. Contest winner Olivia Morris' sign is posted at a bird nesting area in Florida. © Mary Lundeberg
Contest winner Olivia Morris’ sign is posted at a bird nesting area in Florida. © Mary Lundeberg

Education is Vital to Connect Knowledge, Caring and Action

Unfortunately, children love to chase birds. They like to feed seagulls and crows. And many people like to bring their dogs to the beach. That’s three problems created by humans. One question on our test of prior knowledge read, “Birds like to be chased: T or F?” Although 90% of the students answered “False,” when we asked if they chased birds, almost 100% of the students raised their hands! If we can minimize human disturbance to shorebirds and educate children about other threats facing these birds, maybe more of these threatened creatures will survive.

Rachel Baker collaborated with a team of teachers this summer to provide professional development on beach-nesting birds, using the curriculum developed through the Philip Hyde Conservation Grant to schools throughout Southwest Florida. Next year we plan to expand the curriculum to additional schools in Sarasota through the Venice Area Audubon Society, as well as to schools in Lee and Charlotte counties.

This grant enabled me to connect with a variety of people and organizations. I am grateful for the opportunity to interact with so many others who care about conserving these adorable creatures. I’m hopeful that as a community we can conserve habitat and wildlife, in spite of the many challenges facing Southwest Florida.

A snowy plover hides one chick under her wing. When it started to drizzle, the chick hid under her mom for protection. 1200mm (600 mm +2xIII), 1/640, f/8, ISO 640 © Mary Lundeberg
A snowy plover hides one chick under her wing. When it started to drizzle, the chick hid under her mom for protection. 1/640, f8, ISO 640, 1200mm (600 mm +2xIII).dd © Mary Lundeberg

Photography Can Open Hearts and Minds

When photographing chicks I’ve frequently been asked, “Excuse me, what are you photographing?” By showing people adorable, camouflaged chicks that beachgoers can’t see, I was offering people a new perspective. One visitor from abroad said, “That’s the best thing I’ve seen all week on my vacation!” I look forward to a photography exhibit at Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast (October to December 2021) to educate members of the community who may not have read the articles I’ve written for the local papers, (if this pandemic ends).

As Baba Dioum said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Mary Lundebergis the 2020 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant recipient. She uses her photography to support conservation of land and wildlife. Her goal as an artist is to inspire others to appreciate and preserve the beauty and fragility of Florida. She creates images that capture the emotion of wildlife, the beauty of coastal waters, and the majesty of the Milky Way. Her images have supported the work of Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, Audubon, National Wildlife Federation and Barrier Island Parks Society. She lectures, writes articles and authors books on wild Florida. See her work at marylundeberg.com, Facebook and Instagram.