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As drones harass protected nesting birds, Lake Worth Beach considers flight restrictions

AN EXTRAORDINARY SCENE played out in the sky above the Bryant Park shoreline in Lake Worth Beach on the Fourth of July.

It did not involve fireworks.

In a one-sided aerial dogfight, an American oystercatcher, a protected shorebird, was seen attacking a perceived enemy that had invaded its airspace — a drone.

There were a few drones buzzing above the seawall along the Lake Worth Lagoon early that afternoon, operated by photographers documenting the action below, the city’s 21st annual Great American Raft Race.

Most of the drones were small. A larger drone came under attack for several minutes by an adult oystercatcher, which nests on a manmade island south of the Lake Worth Bridge.

Thousands of people along the seawall watching the raft race didn’t notice the brief drama unfolding in the sky above. But a few people did, including a city official.

Drone can be seen in upper left of this image photographing the raft race on July 4, 2022. (City of Lake Worth Beach via Facebook)

“The oystercatcher was clearly stressed out by the drone,’’ said Lake Worth Beach City Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz, who witnessed the scene. The bird “was flying around trying to attack it.’’

Though it wasn’t the first time an oystercatcher has attacked a drone above the islands next to the bridge, the incident has rekindled discussions about a periodic city ban on the launching and landing of drones from Bryant Park and the city’s golf course.

The restrictions would be in effect during oystercatcher nesting season, which runs from March 1 to July 31 but can extend through August, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Oystercatchers, named for their powerful long reddish beaks that can open oyster shells, are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are labeled “imperiled” by the FWC.

They have been nesting on Snook Islands since at least 2005. Clashes between oystercatchers and drones launched from Bryant Park have been witnessed by local birders since at least 2018.

Oystercatchers “view the drones as aerial predators and will chase them relentlessly while the drones are flying. During this time, the eggs/chicks are left unprotected by the adults and are vulnerable to predation,’’ David Carson, a senior analyst with Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management Department, said in a July 2021 letter to City Commissioner Christopher McVoy.

This image was not captured in Lake Worth Beach, but it shows an oystercatcher attacking a drone in an unidentified location, a screenshot from a YouTube video posted by Across Water.

At the time, McVoy already had been talking to city staff about ways to protect the Bryant Park oystercatchers. One suggestion was to post signs near the seawall asking visitors to refrain from flying drones near the islands where the birds nest.

The talks morphed into discussions about possible drone restrictions during nesting season, prompting Carson’s letter last July endorsing the proposed law. But a year later, the City Commission still hasn't voted on the legislation.

After witnessing the raft race incident last month, Diaz asked city officials to get the ball rolling again. On July 19, City Attorney Glen Torcivia told the commission an ordinance is being drafted and will be presented later this year.

Oystercatcher guards chicks on a nesting island off Bryant Park in Lake Worth Beach. (Photo by Gael Silverblatt)

While environmentalists applaud the city for fast-tracking the proposed rules, some said commissioners should have acted sooner.

‘’The drones have been a threat to the survival of the oystercatcher chicks since at least 2018 when they became popular to fly from the Bryant Park area over the nesting site on the island south of the bridge,’’ said Gael Silverblatt, an avid birder who has been photographing the Snook Island oystercatchers since 2014.

“I have watched numerous times when young men have set off a drone over the nesting areas and the oystercatchers have chased them all the way down to the Lantana bridge, leaving their chicks and nest unprotected.’’

Since drones are often equipped with video and still cameras, encounters with attacking birds can produce dramatic footage. But it’s the oystercatchers that can end up paying a fatal price.

And Lake Worth Beach isn’t the only place it happens. Drones have harassed oystercatchers in other parts of Florida, the United States and England. One report linked a rise in drone activity off the coast of Oregon to a decline in the number of oystercatchers.

The video below shows oystercatchers flying by drone in an unidentified location.

And this video shows oystercatchers buzzing drones over the skies of northwest England:

“That’s thrilling to the drone operator to have these birds attacking the drone,’’ Silverblatt said. “But they don't realize that it's a threat, so they prolong that activity and they'll fly the drone over and over the nesting areas.’’

Lake Worth Beach’s proposed ban might include drones operated by the city, not just drones operated by residents and businesses. Exceptions for the city may be made for emergencies such as the need to use drones to assess hurricane damage.

Ben Kerr, the city’s drone pilot, said he flew a drone with a camera over the raft race on July 4 for less than 10 minutes. He said he was not aware of any incidents between his drone and any birds.

“There were smaller drones in the area as well,’’ he said. “Oystercatchers are very territorial so it’s possible one of the smaller ones got its attention.’’

Raft race participants on July 4 did not disturb the oystercatchers. The shorebirds nest on the island in the far distance, below the bridge tender booth. (City of Lake Worth Beach via Facebook).

Diaz said the drone he saw the oystercatcher attacking on July 4 “was a much bigger drone.’’

“Oystercatchers don’t care whose drone it is,’’ McVoy said at a July 19 City Commission meeting. “Whether it’s a city drone or a private person’s drone, it’s a problem either way.’’

In an interview, Diaz said he has launched drones near the bridge in the past as part of his Lake Worth Waterkeeper duties to monitor water quality in the lagoon. One day two years ago, he said, his drone barely made it into the air before an oystercatcher swooped in and flew circles around it.

“My drone is tiny. It fits in the palm of your hand. I knew they could hear it from far away and they reacted to it,’’ said Diaz, who has since refrained from using the drone near the islands. “It very clearly stresses them out.’’

Oystercatchers once were common on beaches and mudflats of brackish estuaries up and down both coasts of Florida before coastal development took a toll on their numbers.

As they struggle to rebound, the last thing they need is another challenge to their survival, Silverblatt said.

“Everybody is in agreement that drones are bad for nesting birds,’’ she said.

Oystercatchers watch over a chick on an island in the Lake Worth Lagoon (Photo by Gael Silverblatt)

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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