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RSW Living Magazine

Rookery Bay: Everything You Need to Know About This Nesting Season

Apr 12, 2018 01:39AM ● By Kevin

Photo courtesy of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Photo courtesy of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR), in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Audubon Florida, has closed the emergent sandbar located one mile southeast of Cape Romano, known as “Second Chance,” according to a release on Rookery Bay's website. The sandbar, which is closed to public access annually from March 1 - Aug. 31, was designated as a Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) by the FWC in the fall of 2015.

"The area has been closed annually since 2001 to protect nesting habitat for Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Wilson’s Plover," the we were told. "This is the second year that the CWA rules are in place prohibiting vessels, in addition to people and dogs, from visiting the sandbar during summer nesting season. Rookery Bay Reserve offers numerous other recreational options throughout its 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters."

RBNERR and FWC have installed perimeter signs on the island to clearly mark the sandbar as closed. The signs will be removed on Aug. 31 after the birds have left and boating visitors may return.

"The Least Tern and Black Skimmer are listed as Threatened species in Florida by the FWC," their website states. "Nesting areas will be monitored throughout the nesting season and harassment or removal of endangered or threatened birds, their eggs or young is a violation of state law and may subject violators to criminal penalties. Additionally, the attempt to remove or possess any migratory bird, their nest or eggs is a violation of federal law."

We had a chance to catch up with Keith Laakkonen, Program Administrator for Florida Department of Environmental Protection at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Adam DiNuovo, Audubon Shorebird Monitoring and Stewardship Program Manager. They discussed the sandbar, local birds, annual improvements to the process, and more in an exclusive Q&A.

Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area shot April 2, 2018. Photo courtesy of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

RSW Living Magazine: Tell us more about the sandbar that was designated as a Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) by the FWC in the fall of 2015. How did that occur and what does that mean?

Keith Laakkonen: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) designated a sandbar in Collier County, known as “Second Chance,” as a Critical Wildlife Area on Nov. 19, 2015. The island, which is part of a larger shoal complex, is an important nesting site for Wilson’s plovers, least terns and black skimmers. Second Chance, approximately 1.5 miles off of Morgan Point, Cape Romano Island, is owned by the state of Florida and is managed by the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

CWAs are established by FWC to protect important congregations of one or more species of wildlife from human disturbance during critical life stages. People and dogs can cause shorebirds to fly from their nests, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation and overheating. In the long-term, human disturbance also can cause wildlife to abandon high-quality habitat that is necessary for their survival.

Second Chance received its name in 1997 when a local ecologist observed least terns nesting there for the first time. The sandbar was considered a second chance for nesting least terns, which had abandoned other nesting sites in Collier County. Since that time, Second Chance became more important to birds nesting in the area and it also became a popular recreation destination for people. Unfortunately, visitors were causing disturbances to the birds which caused nesting success to decline. Once the area was established as a CWA and the area was closed to the public from March 1 through Aug. 31, visitor disturbance decreased and Second Chance became one of the most successful least tern ground colonies in the region for four of the last five years. During this time, Second Chance also became an important site for Wilson’s plovers and black skimmers. 

RSW: It seems like you've made improvements year over year in the nesting period. Can you tell us why that is? What has led to continued successes and wins?

Adam DiNuovo: The success we are having can to attributed to a very strong partnership between Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Audubon Florida.  Staff from each organization post nesting sites each spring to ensure the birds have a safe place to raise their young.  This partnership gives us the ability to monitor the nesting sites several times a week during the breeding season, which is essential for helping us identify any problems that might arise (predators, human disturbance, illness etc).

Outreach and education are also critical for beach nesting bird success.  The two primary nesting sites in Collier County are Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area and Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area.  Second Chance is managed by RBNERR with daily outreach being done by Team Ocean, a volunteer group from Rookery Bay.  Team Ocean talks to boaters approaching the island and educates them about the nesting birds.  Without this effort the nesting success we have seen the last two years would be impossible.  Audubon Florida manages the outreach at Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area.  A staff member and several volunteers are on the beach every Saturday and Sunday to educate beachgoers.  This presence on the beach helps ensure the birds are allowed to nest undisturbed.

Photo courtesy of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

RSW: Can you give us more information about the Least Tern and Black Skimmer? What types of birds are they and what sort of environmental impact do they have in Southwest Florida?

DiNuovo: Black Skimmers and Least Terns are colonial nesting waterbirds, preferring to nest on large expanses of undisturbed beach.  They nest together in large colonies, the Least Terns starting in late April and the Black Skimmers in mid-May.  Both birds lay their eggs in a small scrape in the sand which is why it is critical to rope off nesting sites to prevent eggs from being stepped on by unsuspecting beachgoers.  The chicks are semi-precocial, having the ability to move around the beach immediately upon drying but rely on the parents for food.  Both sexes share chick rearing duties, dividing time between brooding chicks and foraging for fish to feed the rapidly growing chicks.  Least Tern and Black Skimmer chicks are fight capable at around 21 and 25 days respectively.       

RSW: What are alternative options for folks looking to do something outdoors during the nesting period?

Laakkonen: Second Chance is one of the very few areas that are closed to the public during the nesting season. There are dozens of miles of beaches that are open to explore near Cape Romano, Kice Island and in the Ten Thousand Islands.  Visitors can also use the Beach Access Guide, located here, to find coastal, recreational areas throughout Florida.

RSW: What other things does Rookery Bay have going on this spring and summer?

Laakkonen: Rookery Bay Research Reserve works with Audubon Florida to host a summer lecture series called, Breakfast with the Birds. The series includes four monthly lectures given by Audubon Shorebird Stewardship Program manager Adam DiNuovo, and invites guests to learn about birds while enjoying pastries, juice and coffee. The first breakfast lecture is May 15 and is titled “Connecting the globe through bird migration.” The lecture costs $15, and Friends of Rookery Bay members enjoy a 10 percent discount. The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is also gearing up for its very popular Kids FREE Fridays program, which invites families to enjoy free admission every Friday, from June 15 through Aug. 4.

Least tern colony. Photo courtesy of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

RSW: Anything else you'd like to add?

Laakkonen: Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve protects 110,000 acres of pristine mangrove forest, uplands and protected waters. A myriad of wildlife, including 150 species of birds and many threatened and endangered animals, thrive in the estuarine environment and surrounding upland hammocks and scrub found within the Reserve. The Reserve is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees a network of 29 Research Reserves nationwide.

Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is open Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., and regular admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids 6-12 and free for children under six and members of the Friends of Rookery Bay. Learn more at