By Allan Worms, Ph.D., Wildlife Biologist (retired)
Photos by Claire Herzog
Siesta Key Beach is known for its cool and beautiful white sand and its gently sloping shore. But it is also known for the outstanding array of birds that live and breed on the beach, that come to catch fish along the shore or to feed on the varied organisms in the “wrack” line. This article features some of the beautiful and often rare birds you may find on our beach and explains a little about why it is such a good beach for bird life and where you might see these special animals.
We mentioned the “wrack”. This is the name of the accumulated line of sea weeds, grasses and even live organisms often left behind on the shore after each high tide. An important food source, it attracts many small birds such as Sanderlings, sand pipers, plovers and the migrating Ruddy Turnstone shown below.
The Ruddy Turnstone is a seasonal visitor, typically seen in the spring and early summer. This male is ordinarily a plain bird. But seen here, in full breeding plumage of white, chestnut brown and black and even with stripes on his head, will soon leave Siesta Key beach and begin a long flight to the Arctic Circle where the species breeds. Importantly, this species feeds, not just on fish or insects, but on crustaceans, mollusks, and many other organisms found in the shoreline “wrack” and elsewhere along the beach.
When you see one of these beautiful little Ruddy Turnstones searching for food you will know quickly why it is called a “turn stone”. It uses its bill to turn through seaweed, shells and other objects to find food needed to build strength. Moreover, you will appreciate why raked beaches, while clear and scenic, are often referred to as “dead”. Native plants, many food organisms and the detritus supporting food organisms are disturbed and, eventually, gone.
Next is the beautiful small Snowy Plover hen seen at her nest. This very small bird’s white plumage blends well with the Siesta Key beach sand. She stands over two spotted eggs that also blend in with the natural beach cover. Hopefully, she will lay a third egg and then begin incubating them. Ultimately, she and her mate are challenged with helping the young chicks learn to feed not on fish, but on insects and the many other small organisms on the sandy beach and in the dunes. Some Snowy Plover chicks may try to eat any insect moving and small enough to be caught.
The Snowy Plover is a seriously challenged species. Once many more nested among Florida’s barrier islands. Now there are only about 200 nesting pairs throughout the whole state. Habitat destruction, hand in hand with community growth, is regarded as the primary reason. Notice: she’s watching you!
This final photo illustrates several species of tall wading birds in a tidal pool that is present now on the north end of the beach. This pool, a mix of salt water from high tides and freshwater from rains, was formed by wind and waves and by the sweep of sand accumulating from Big Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. The pool provides a rich variety of foods ranging from small fishes to many kinds of invertebrates and other bottom organisms.
The birds in this pool photo include a seldom seen Tri-colored Heron (on the left), several Snowy Egrets and Great White Egrets, and a brilliantly colored Roseate Spoonbill at the back edge of the pool. The Roseate Spoonbill is also a bird we don’t often see in this area.
If you visit this pool now and on future opportunities you may see the various species of birds change as the water level changes. A shallower summer pool typically becomes more of a rich “soup” of food species and, thus, attracts different feeding birds. Also, along the perimeter of the pool you may find Semi-palmated and Least Sandpipers, as well as Snowy Plovers and various other shorebird species.
If you enjoy seeing beautiful birds and the other wildlife that frequent Siesta Key Beach, don’t pass up an opportunity to walk north from Access 11 all the way to the tidal pool. And now is a good time to find migrating birds feeding and resting on the beach before going farther on their long pilgrimages. Be careful, however, not to disturb the resting migrants or the nesting birds such as those in the protected buffered areas. The long distance migrants need food and rest for strength and the nesting Snowy Plovers, Least Terns and other birds need rest and security to incubate their eggs and raise their young.
Enjoy and protect.