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As an unusually warm winter draws to a close, the first shorebird nests of the season have begun to appear at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, officials said Monday.

Each year, beginning in late February and ending in late summer, the seashore provides nesting habitat for several species of ground nesting shorebirds, including least terns, snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers, and black skimmers. Least terns come from as far away as Central and South America to raise their young on the seashore’s beaches.

Park officials are encouraging visitors to show their support shorebird chicks and help remind others to slow down to by displaying a free Gulf Islands “Chick Magnet” on their vehicles. Beginning Friday, March 10, visitors can pick up pick up a free magnet at the Fort Pickens & Perdido Key entrance stations, at historic Fort Pickens, and at park headquarters in the Naval Live Oaks Area.

Adult birds and their tiny chicks are sometimes struck by vehicles as they look for food near or on the far side of roadways. In order to decrease the number of road kills, posted speed limits will be temporarily reduced to 25 miles per hour near nesting areas. By observing posted speed limits and watching carefully for birds flying across or feeding along the roadway, you can help to protect the nesting colonies. By September, nesting is complete and normal use of the roads will resume.

Intrusion into the nesting areas will cause the birds to take flight, leaving their nests vulnerable to heat and predators. Adult birds will often dive at intruders in an effort to drive them away from the colony. Alarmed birds may then fly low across the road and into the paths of oncoming vehicles. Bicyclists, walkers, and joggers are encouraged to be aware of bird behaviors along the roadways near posted nesting areas.

“Working together, we can ensure that shorebirds have safe places to nest within the national seashore,” said park superintendent Dan Brown. Park staff will monitor beaches for nesting activity and close areas as needed, Brown said.

The closed areas represent a very small percentage of the seashore, officials said, asking that visitors divert their activities to other areas. If visitors find themselves besieged by birds, it means that they’re likely near an unmarked nesting area or young chicks. In those situations, visitors are asked to leave the area by back-tracking their steps as the eggs are very small, well-camouflaged, and hard to see.

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