ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- Least terns have begun their annual nesting on the beaches of Anna Maria Island, marking the beginning of a delicate time on the 7-mile barrier island and great concern for the shorebirds' safety.
Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring group, told Bradenton Beach officials in an email Friday that she and a volunteer found nesting shorebirds in front of the north parking area of the Beach House Restaurant (200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach) all the way to the north of Cortez Road.
Fox also noticed cat tracks in the area.
"We need to keep a good control of the wild cats," Fox wrote in a follow-up email Sunday. "It would be shameful to think we spent millions of federal dollars to build our beaches for humans and nesting endangered species only to have nests destroyed by domestic animals."
Fox clarified Monday that she was referring to outdoor cats.
"They can be pets, wild ... any outdoor cats need to be leashed. It's the law. At least, I know it's our county law," she told a Herald reporter. "We have eggs on the ground up in the city of Anna Maria, eggs on the ground in Bradenton Beach."
Fox was unable to give a solid count of the least terns that have laid eggs, citing the difficulty in estimating the number of eggs in a colony. She did say, however, that there is one least tern colony and possibly two more in Bradenton Beach. There are currently five nests of snowy plovers in Anna Maria.
Populations of least terns are endangered in many areas because of human im
pacts on nesting areas, especially competition for the use of beaches, according to the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit environmental organization.
Least tern nesting can last a minimum of six weeks, said Dr. Marianne Korosy, a coastal bird biologist with Audubon Florida.
"Once they lay eggs, it takes about three weeks to hatch the eggs and then it takes another three weeks before they can fly," she said.
Korosy shared some tips for the public to be aware of when near the nesting birds.
"Number-one is, please respect the posted area around the birds' nesting site and don't go inside the nesting area. The eggs are very camouflaged. They're very hard to see and people can step on them without realizing they're there," she said. "And then the second thing is please don't feed seagulls or crows on the beach because it attracts those birds and they will prey on the chicks and the eggs of the least terns... it's pretty scary when you see it happening."
As for the issue of cats on the beaches, Korosy said it's important to keep them indoors during nesting season.
"Keep cats indoors because they will prey on and kill little chicks," she said, adding that dogs should also be kept a long distance from nesting birds.
Fox said she had to take down bird feeders outside her home after cats in her neighborhood kept killing the birds.
"It's not just the nesting beaches, it's everywhere," she said of free-roaming cats. "Every year, it's getting much worse... and some have collars. It's just out of control here."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.