LORIDA – Over the 19 years Paul Gray has worked around Highlands County and the Okeechobee watershed as a science coordinator for Audubon Florida, he’s seen firsthand the effect loud noise and disturbances can have on the area’s nesting birds and their offspring.
With today’s Fourth of July, Gray knows some folks will be legally or illegally lighting and shooting off an array of fireworks and causing a cacophony of blasts, whizzes, sizzles and whistles.
A plethora of freshwater lakes, rivers and streams in Highlands County are home to at least 12 species of wading birds, some of them - like least terns - are locally threatened and on species-of-special-concern lists. Gray said along with the fun, residents need to be aware of the impact fireworks can have to wild birds and their nesting chicks.
“People just need to be aware of concentrations of birds, don’t harm them, don’t harrass them,” said Gray, who has worked in the watershed from Orlando to Fisheating Creek. “Fireworks are a huge distraction to them. They scare them to death, stay out of natural areas. We have to be responsible for their (birds) needs and protection.”
Gray is working with Audubon Florida to make folks aware of the impact fireworks have on coastal and inland birds and their dependent chicks.
Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s director of Wildlife Conservation in Tallahassee, said although Highlands County is in the state’s interior, many species of coastal birds make their ways here to breed and nest. She said the Kissimmee River, Lake Istokpoga and Lake Jackson are prime nesting spots for birds still guarding flightless chicks.
“A single ill-placed fireworks explosion or other disturbance can cause birds to fly from a nest, leaving their tiny babies vulnerable to predation and over-heating,” she said.
Two recent incidents shows the need for increased awareness of Florida’s nesting birds, said Wraithmell. In June, a Least Tern bird colony was destroyed by visitors with unleashed dogs on Disappearing Island near New Smyrna Beach. And the week of June 30, Snowy Plover, Black Skimmer and Least Tern nests were crushed by a motorcycle rider that ignored signs on Siesta Key.
Wraithmell said she wanted to remind folks that even though Highlands County is about 90 miles from the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean coasts, coastal birds make their ways inland. She said terns learn to live on gravel rooftops due to beach development and are able to transition to living on inland home rooftops as well. Gray said he saw a flock of nesting terns on a Sebring Publix roof Thursday.
“Floridians can help by respecting all posted areas, cleaning up trash, and setting a good example for others by leaving personal fireworks at home,” she said.
Each year along Florida’s coast and inward, state and local officials, along with Audubon volunteers and staff post many of the state’s beach and nesting sites to prevent human disturbance. Additionally, on beaches, volunteer “bird stewards” from local Audubon chapters and other partners observe nesting bird colonies on Florida beaches this holiday weekend. Volunteers also help monitor colonies, collecting important science data about the birds’ nesting habits.
Florida state law prohibits setting off any explosive device into the air without a special permit and that includes fireworks. However, police officers and deputies generally show toleration for them July 4 and New Year’s Eve, unless someone is shooting them off late in the night keeping people awake or shooting them in an unsafe manner.
Some of Audubon Florida Independence Day tips include:
• Respect posted areas, even if birds aren’t in sight. Birds, eggs and nests are well-camouflaged and disturbance by people can cause the abandonment of an entire colony.
• Avoid disturbing groups of birds. If birds take flight or appear agitated, back away.
• Don’t bury or leave trash, picnic leftovers, charcoal or fish scraps on the beach. They attract predators of chicks and eggs, such as fish crows, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and laughing gulls.