Protected Feathered Havens
Rolling dunes covered in swaths of sea oats. It’s a peaceful stroll on an unblemished white quartz beach, when suddenly a shriek pierces the air.
A tiny bird swoops and dives in close, wings tucked, and rolls away for another close pass. Its fighter-jet maneuvers and v-shaped wings built for speed ensure it can’t be mistaken for an angry mini-seagull.
It’s a least tern. And watch where you step, because tiny camouflaged eggs, scraped into the sand, are likely nearby.
These valiant little seabirds defend their nests along Gulf Coast beaches in the spring and summer. Least terns are protected by state law and were once a threatened species, but Northwest Florida’s pristine beaches and thoughtful volunteers and visitors are helping them rebound.
Vast cackling colonies of least terns nest along Santa Rosa Island and Johnson Beach in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Look for them flying in pairs or solo, diving for fish in the nearshore waters. Stay out of the clearly marked nest colonies. Some pairs of terns also will nest away from the colonies, and while the nests are hard to spot, the parents will try to ward unwelcome visitors from straying too close.
Black skimmers can be found mixed in along with these colonies. The large, graceful skimmers will soar inches above the Gulf surface, skimming food from the water with their beaks.
Along the nearshore, plovers and sanderlings dart between receding waves to snare crustaceans. The Wilson’s plover is another bird that is slowly making a comeback.
Squadrons of brown pelicans are a common sight, as are the spindly, graceful great blue herons, which wade the shallows for fish, crab and will even grab the occasional lizard. The little green heron can be found inshore, often resting on boat mooring lines to steal fish that stray too close to the surface.
Osprey and Great Bald Eagles have also rebounded in recent years, and can be found circling and diving after fish in the Gulf, Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound and other protected waters. They nest in high trees or on platforms created by volunteers and utilities.