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Exciting news! This nesting season, Fort De Soto Park hosted a successful American Oystercatcher pair that fledged three chicks, a first in almost 20 years. The family has stolen the hearts of many, and locals and visitors alike are invested in their survival. Chief Ranger Dave Harshbarger says, “Many of the rangers seem to have taken them on as their own, and the oystercatchers have definitely become an important part of people’s lives.” The pair eventually raised and fledged three healthy chicks from their Fort De Soto home.
Deciding to Nest
The female of the pair was banded as a chick in Georgia with red bands and white letters “AE.” After a visit to Southwest Florida in 2017, she decided to call it home. In 2023, along with her mate, nicknamed “Archie” by local birders and volunteers, AE looked long and hard for a suitable place to nest. She finally approved of a scrape nest in the sand…right in the middle of the busiest beach in the park. Audubon staff worked closely with park staff and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists to ensure that their posted area gave the birds enough space from threats that accompany a busy beach, including human disturbance, dogs, and predators attracted to trash.
Defying the Odds: Busy Beach, Predators, and Storm Surge
Beachgoers and birders alike had up-close views of American Oystercatcher behavior. AE chased off any predator that entered her territory, including crows, gulls, and night herons, and her protective nature continues to impress. AE and Archie could not defend against everything; a king tide early in the season brought water across the entire park. The parking lot, trails, and bathrooms all flooded, and everyone prepared for the worst. Luckily, the oystercatcher nest remained dry, perfectly placed on a slightly elevated point. The pair operated as normal and continued exchanging roles in incubation, feeding, and defense.
Soon enough, the first tiny chick popped its little head out from under AE. And the next day, another! The adults brought food to the chicks, defended them from predators, and shielded them from the hot sun. Three days later, a surprise third chick hatched. It didn’t take long for AE, Archie, and three tiny fuzz balls to parade over to a small lagoon to forage. The park also created a temporary sanctuary there to give the family refuge from bird photographers (remember to always follow wildlife photography guidelines! Click here to learn more.).
Each day the chicks survived, they grew stronger and more resilient. Guidance on how to best care for the family quickly spread through the park and social media. At just over a month old, bird banders permitted by the FWC drove from across the state to apply leg bands to all three chicks and document this unique success. Using the utmost care, researchers banded the oldest to youngest with red bands and white letters: YA6, YA5, and YA4.
“I’m just so thankful for the partnership with Audubon,” says Ranger Harshbarger. “Of course, we’re all invested here, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it without y’all.”
Audubon celebrates the successful chick family with the park rangers, the FWC, and the Audubon volunteers who have dedicated more than 300 hours this season to educate 1,500 people at the park this season. Are you interested in joining our volunteer flock? Click here.
Story by Abby McKay, South Pinellas County Anchor Steward.