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While fun for humans, fireworks can be hazardous to wildlife

People watch fireworks exploding over Copacabana beach during New Year celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Felipe Dana/AP
People watch fireworks exploding over Copacabana beach during New Year celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The explosions and bursts from Fourth of July fireworks not only causes "oohs" and "ahs" for humans, they can startle and possibly injure wildlife along Florida’s beaches. Area environmental and wildlife protection organizations want beachgoers to be conscious of this when celebrating this holiday weekend.

During the summer, the National Audubon Society closely watches state-protected species that use Florida beaches to nest. When there are holidays where fireworks are common used for celebrating, Florida’s shorebirds get frightened by the sounds.

“They'll actually leave their nest, which means those eggs are now exposed to the elements, to the heat, to the sun. But also, if they have chicks, all the chicks scatter in different directions,” said Rochelle Streker, Audubon’s southwest Florida shorebird manager.

Streker says the state protected species include the black skimmer, least tern, snowy plover, American oystercatcher, and the Wilson's plover.

“And the birds sometimes don't return if they're too scared, then they won't come back to continue to raise those eggs or those chicks. You can also kind of just actually literally scare a bird to death," said Streker.

On bird nesting beaches, there are many large signs to inform beachgoers to be cautious of these habitats.

“We are grateful for all of Floridians who help our shorebirds and seabirds thrive during the breeding season. We rely on the kindness of all of our beach goers in sharing the shore and giving them space to breed and rest and feed,” said Shea Armstrong, the Florida shorebird alliance coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

It’s also crucial that beachgoers clean up after themselves this Fourth of July to prevent birds from further danger.

“Last year, at the end of fourth of July, I walked a critical wildlife area, which is a state-protected area that they designated as important for wildlife and I picked up hundreds of old fireworks, boxes, little pieces of plastic, little pieces of cardboard,” said Streker.

These shorebirds, particularly chicks, commonly mistake litter for food and consume it. This tends to build up and cause stomach pain, blockages and starvation.

Audubon has stewards and volunteers that go to three locations in Collier County and two locations in Lee County to inform beachgoers about nesting shorebirds if they’re recreating near them.

To keep these nesting shorebirds safe, it’s recommended to throw away any garbage to prevent predators from approaching the beach, remove all personal gear when leaving, fill human made holes in the sand, look out for the critical wildlife areas, and make sure your dog wears a leash on dog friendly beaches.

It’s essential to give nesting shorebirds plenty of space when sharing the beach with them, as Florida beaches become nurseries in the summer. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages people to do the “flock walk.”

“We recommend people when they see a flock of shorebirds and seabirds to, what we call, do the flock walk, meaning identify what a flock looks like and walk around them, give them plenty of distance. And you can know if you're giving them plenty of distance by watching their behavior,” said Armstrong.

“If you notice them flying, flushing, starting to walk away from you, it means you're getting too close and you can give them a little bit more space, which of course isn't always possible on every single beach as we know some beaches have very short distance between the shore and the dune. But even in those instances, it's always great to give them as much space as possible.”

Area environmental and wildlife organizations recommend going to a professional firework display to keep Florida beaches and wildlife safe during the long holiday weekend.

“Most of these shows are in locations where we don't have nesting birds and when they are nearby to nesting birds, the state’s already been informed and we have these stewards and these volunteers out there trying to help the birds in these moments,” said Streker.

Matt DePaolis, the environmental policy director for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundations, says that people will be stationed on Captiva to monitor how the fireworks affect surrounding wildlife.

“We don't have the data we'd like to see so that's what this year is really all about for us. Specifically, we're wondering how the fireworks are going to be disorienting to sea turtles, whether that's turtles that are making crawls to come make their nests, or baby turtles that are hatching and trying to find the water,” said DePaolis.

Aside from the fireworks bewildering animals, there isn’t much information on how the environment is affected by this popular holiday festivity.

“We also don't really know the impact that things like the heavy metals or extra debris coming off the fireworks or air quality impacts how those are being felt on the wildlife around the area. But we know that if you shoot a firework off over the water, it's gonna fall in the water. And that could have some potential effect on water quality,” said DePaolis.

DePaolis says there is a petition to codify an amendment for the right to clean and healthy waters to give people a voice about water quality issues.

The SCCF is instituting beach basket stations around Sanibel to encourage beachgoers to dispose of their garbage all year around, not just around the major holidays. Keep Lee County Beautiful will be conducting a cleanup on the causeway going over to Sanibel after the Fourth of July holiday.