New grants support Gulf Coast birds and wildlife habitat
A new grants program supported by a Southern Company partnership benefits wildlife and habitat essential to Gulf Coast ecosystems and communities.

Beach-nesting birds that have called our coastline home — long before condos and hotels sprung up to cater to sun-seeking tourists — are in trouble. 

Coastal development has vastly reduced their nesting grounds and squeezed the birds into smaller areas. This has made them and their chicks more vulnerable to predation and the impacts of human activity, causing their numbers to dramatically dwindle.  

Cash-strapped state agencies and conservation groups have had a hard time assessing the precise extent of the decline.

But thanks to the new Gulf Coast Conservation Grant Program, partially funded by Southern Company’s Power of Flight program in—a partnership with its four operating companies, Gulf Power, Alabama Power, Mississippi Power and Georgia Power, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation— more help is on the way to get a handle on the state of the bird populations and what conservation efforts are working best. The grants will also bolster programs aimed at protecting the habitats of endangered and threatened coastal birds and other wildlife.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other public and private partners announced the new grant program focused at furthering the work of 29 grant recipients across the United States.

Five of the recipients are in the Southern Company service territory.  Three of those projects are within the Gulf Power service territory.

  • State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science & Forestry

Will implement experimental vehicle speed reduction measures and provide shelters for snowy plover chicks in order to increase the population of beach-nesting birds on Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is currently limited by poor reproductive success related to predators and mortality from vehicle strikes. Grant amount:  $105,000.

  • Manomet

Will create a Florida shorebird-recovery business plan built upon work of the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Conservation Business Strategy and the American Oystercatcher Recovery Business Plan. The plan will strive to recover four imperiled species in the state:  American oyster catcher, snowy plover, skimmer and least tern. One of the goals is to compile baseline numbers of bird populations and set targeted goals for recovery. Grant amount:  $50,767.  

  • The Nature Conservancy

Will support the creation of two new conservation corps and a veterans’ conservation corps pilot demonstration to undertake projects that restore and protect natural resources. The project will improve long-term habitat health for native plants and animals, and create dozens of restoration jobs along the Gulf Coast, including in the Apalachicola basin area. Grant amount: $250,000.

“Joining the Gulf Coast Conservation Grants Program is another way Gulf Power is continuing to support vital wildlife recovery work,” said Gulf Power Director of Environmental Affairs Jim Vick. “Our Power of Flight program has a long history of supporting many critical bird species in the Southeast, and this new initiative furthers our work to protect the coastal nesting birds that are such an essential part of our Gulf coast ecosystems and communities.”

Local impacts

Jeff DeQuattro, The Nature Conservancy director of restoration, said Franklin County Promise Coalition will manage the conservation corps made up of young adults. They will do restoration and conservation work on both the coast and in the forest in the Apalachicola basin.

“They’ll be doing invasive species removal, tree-planting and scientific monitoring to building oyster reefs and other things to improve habitat,” he said.  

The corps concept is just like the National Park’s Youth Conservation Corps, DeQuattro said, by providing training and pay for young adults to do real conservation work. The program is expected to be a prototype for large scale conservation corps that might do work on projects funded through Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration dollars in the future.   

Shiloh Autumn Schulte, Manomet project coordinator, said the project will take a statewide approach, working with all stakeholders including Audubon, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), National Park Service and Army Corps of Engineers, to develop a conservation business plan for the next decade that builds on existing projects.

“Florida’s project is the first piece of a larger comprehensive plan to roll out,” he said. “It’s part of the largest Atlantic Flyway project for shorebirds from the Arctic, Canada and through South America and the Caribbean.”

The plan will include implementing stronger predator controls, standardizing ways to deal with human disturbances on coastal bird habitat, beefing up volunteer bird stewardship programs in coastal communities and set specific and measurable goals. 

“This wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have the grant,” Schulte said. “This kind of work is challenging to get money to do and you can’t recover a species spread across the coastline by only picking at it with regional grants. This is the kind of project that will allow the whole project to move forward and all of us work for the same goals.”

The SUNY project will add valuable data to the Manomet project and further the productivity and mortality studies national seashore biologists and SUNY graduate student Maureen Durkin have conducted on snowy plovers for the last five years.

Anyone who visits the national seashore has seen the measures put into place each spring and summer to protect plovers and other threatened nesting shorebirds – reducing speed limits, roping off nesting grounds, stepping up speed enforcement with hefty citations and increasing public awareness campaigns with the help of Audubon Florida.

“This grant will help us, along with the National Park Service, look at if the new stuff we’re doing is helping to cut down on the road mortality,” Durkin said. “It’s a great collaborative effort with the staff at the national seashore and great partnership with Audubon Florida and FWC.”

Durkin’s advisor and project lead, SUNY assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management Jonathan Cohen, says the research includes determining if new “chick” shelters improve survivability. The shelters are meant to shield chicks that are often left exposed to the elements and predators, including sea gulls and other birds, when their parents are out searching for food or flush from the nests when predators, including humans, are nearby.

Scientists believe the national seashore is the nesting grounds to about one-fifth of the state’s population of snowy plovers. The welfare of these plovers may be indicative of the welfare of other species and the health of the ecosystem.

If we want their species to continue, Durkin said, we have to protect them in places like the national seashore, state parks and the military-owned stretches of the Gulf Coast.

“They can’t go to Pensacola Beach and nest,” she said. “If you promote snowy plover habitat and doing the things that benefit them, you are likely benefiting a host of other species and coastal vegetation.”

Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida director of Wildlife Conservation, is excited by the potential impacts the Manomet and SUNY projects will have on the ongoing bird conservation efforts in the state.  

Massachusetts-based Manomet, in particular she said, has the manpower and time to quickly turn around a project that Audubon Florida and the state FWC wants to do but lacks the resources.

“It will basically lay out the work that needs to be done for the recovery of the species from protecting birds from disturbances and addressing predation problems and protecting habitat and some research like SUNY’s on Gulf Islands National Seashore,” Wraithmell said. “And it will prioritize those projects and get a sense of where is the best value.

 “It’s really a very seminal investment helping to pave the way for what could be decades-worth of coastal bird recovery in Florida,” Wraithmell said. 


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