April on the Beach

An April walk on Longboat Key's beaches offers many clues that change is in the air. Laughing gulls, now adorned in their black summer hoods, have abandoned their large, noisy flocks and rest in pairs on the sand or cuddle on channel markers. So too have royal terns selected their breeding partners and hunt in pairs above the gulf swells or placid bay waters.

Lanky willets, having wintered in small groups, now gather in large flocks, preparing to depart for the Northern Plains; a minority will remain in Florida throughout the year. Sanderlings, having spent the winter racing ahead of waves in harmonious flocks, are now testy, chasing one another across the beach; other migrants, including black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstones, red knots and short-billed dowitchers are molting to their breeding plumage and will soon abandon their winter home. In contrast, flocks of least terns have arrived from wintering grounds in Central America and will now disperse to isolated beaches of the Gulf Coast and sand spits of the major Midwest rivers to raise their young.

Many humans who visit the Gulf Coast in mid April will enjoy the pleasant weather and sparsely populated beaches but will pay little attention to the appearance and behavior of their avian counterparts; to them, gulls are gulls, terns are gulls and every shorebird is a sandpiper. Those of us who enjoy the diversity and seasonal fluctuations of natural populations pity their lack of interest and are concerned that such apathy, while not malicious, is a significant threat to the conservation movement.