For the Birds Radio Program: Birding in Miami Beach

Original Air Date: Nov. 4, 2003

How are people protecting beach habitat in southern Florida today, compared with when Laura visited Miami Beach in 1968?

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When I was a teenager in 1968, my family took a vacation to Miami Beach, Florida. I’d never traveled outside of the Midwest in my life before this, and didn’t have any concepts of ecology, habitat protection, or biogeography. Miami Beach was a mess—each hotel had a fence and breakwater separating its beach from the next hotel’s beach, totally messing up the erosion patterns and the natural habitat, to say nothing of aesthetics.

My husband Russ had a meeting in Miami Beach last week, and I couldn’t wait to see how things had changed from the way I remembered. I knew things were going to be better—I’d read a news story maybe two decades ago about how the breakwaters at Miami Beach had been taken down, and knew they were trying to restore at least some of the natural water patterns. But the improvements went far beyond what I’d expected. There are enormous human pressures on Miami Beach, but apparently the people currently designing the Miami Beach waterfront are taking seriously the needs of both the natural plants and animals of the area and the things humans want when they head for a day at the beach.

The worst problems at most beaches have to do with what people do between the inland and the actual waterfront. Natural beach vegetation not only helps protect loose sandy soils from erosion—it also provides food and shelter for natural wildlife, from crabs and other invertebrates to shorebirds and songbirds. How to protect this fragile ecosystem while making beaches accessible to humans presents some real problems, but this is where the new design for Miami Beach is perfect. Although virtually every square yard of beachfront property is developed for resorts or parking areas for the general public, the outer edge of the resorts and public accesses will soon all be boardwalk. On the developed side of the boardwalk are the hotels and parking lots, the swimming pools and palm trees and exotic vegetation. But on the beach side of the boardwalk, there will be a wide fenced-in area of natural beach vegetation and undisturbed habitat. Throughout the length of the boardwalk there are plenty of ramps and stairways down to the beach, but between the sandy beach and all the hotels, there is apparently going to be more natural habitat than I’ve ever seen in any resort area. Some lengths of this project are already finished.

I spent several hours walking along the beach and the stretches of boardwalk already completed. Most of the birds I saw were the ones that thrive in Florida’s urban areas—pigeons and Eurasian Collared Doves, Laughing Gulls, Boat-tailed Grackles, starlings, and Monk Parakeets, but there were plenty of species that are not typically associated with cities. Of course lots of Brown Pelicans, herons and egrets flew overhead, but some were actually coming down for fishing or resting among the people—I even saw an Osprey actively fishing where people were swimming. Sanderlings, Willets, and a few other shorebirds actively hunted along the edge of the water, right among the people, though the shorebirds were far more numerous at sunrise, when there were very few people present, than at midday when the beach was teeming with humans. And all along the boardwalk I saw songbirds, from Cardinals that spend the year in Miami Beach to Yellow-throated and Palm Warblers that head down there for the winter, and Nashville Warblers that were just passing through.

Of course, Miami Beach still presents dangerous hazards for birds. The lights from all those high rise hotels twinkle in the airspace of nocturnal migrants, acting as beacons that lure many to their deaths every spring and fall. And traffic and windows take out plenty of birds, providing food for the burgeoning vulture population. But little by little, we humans are figuring out ways to fulfill our needs while protecting the needs of natural creatures as well. And that’s what true progress is all about.