A yellow rope stretched between poles offers a barrier that Audubon Louisiana hopes will help keep birds on Louisiana sandy beaches safe for another nesting season.
One spot on Grand Isle, another on Elmer’s Island and two in Cameron Parish have signs asking visitors, “Please do not disturb,” the areas of nesting least tern and Wilson’s plover are trying to raise some chicks.
“The terns don’t like too much vegetation. It’s sort of the middle part of the beach,” said Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation with Audubon Louisiana.
It’s in the same area of the beach where people like to enjoy their beach time as well, so the signs and fences are there to ask people to be considerate.
Each year, nesting begins in early April and can last through early August. Johnson said the end of May and beginning of June is the peak of the nesting season.
“Some of these eggs are even starting to hatch,” Johnson said.
The birds like to nest close to each other so there can be anywhere from 20 to several hundred birds nesting on the ground in these areas, he said. The actual nests aren’t much to look at since the birds just scrape off a half inch of sand to form a slight dip and lay their one to three eggs.
“It’s very easy to not notice them,” Johnson said.
Neither the least tern nor the Wilson’s plover are listed on the endangered species list, but they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That’s not to say Audubon members or volunteers are out writing citations to people who disturb the birds.
Instead, the effort is about educating people on the dangers that face the birds from human interaction, the consistent coastal land loss in Louisiana that is decreasing their habitat and other perils.
One lesson is to have people stay away from the nesting area because eggs needs their parents to stay cool.
“The egg can cook in the sun in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes,” Johnson said. “Birds will dip their bellies in water and then shade the nest to keep them cool.”
If flushed off the nest, adult birds can’t provide the cooling activities that keep the eggs healthy during the hot Louisiana summers.
The birds try to nest as early in the season as possible. If the chicks survive, the adults are done for the year. But if the first nesting isn’t successful, the birds will continue to try into the hot days of summer.
Even with the education, he said, volunteers still will see people crossing the barrier into the nesting area. Grant Isle residents are very aware of the nesting birds, but visitors to the island are new every year.
“It’s a matter of not understanding. They don’t realize if they go in there that the eggs cook in the sun,” Johnson said.
Some other tips for beach visitors include being more aware of bird behavior and what the birds are telling you with their actions.
“If you’re being dive bombed by these birds, it means you’re too close,” Johnson said.
Terns have another method and that is to poop on any intruder to try to drive them away.
“And the terns are very accurate,” Johnson said with a laugh. “They’re trying to scare you away from the nest.” Also, it’s a bad idea to feed birds on the beach or leave food on the ground because terns and Wilson’s plovers aren’t interested. Instead, this food can attract predators that can threaten the birds and their chicks.
Audubon members are always looking for volunteers during the summer to do public education on the beach in the nesting areas. Anyone interested in volunteering in Grand Isle or coastal Cameron Parish this summer can contact Johnson at email@example.com. For information and to sign up for the email list, visit http://la.audubon.org/coastal-stewardship-1.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.