Lake Worth Lagoon Estuary Logo
Image of Lake Worth Lagoon Estuary along the downtown West Palm Beach skyline​​
Lake Worth Lagoon, the largest estuary in the Palm Beaches, has seen dramatic change over the past 150 years. The lagoon was historically a freshwater lake, isolated from the ocean by the barrier islands now known as Singer Island and Palm Beach. The first connection to the ocean was constructed in the late 1800s, followed by hardening of what is now Lake Worth Inlet and construction of South Lake Worth Inlet. In the following decades, the lagoon exploded into a thriving estuary, home to myriad species of shorebirds, wading birds, sea turtles, manatees and everything else brought in by the clear blue waters of the Gulf Stream. Since then, the march of development has hardened 70% of the natural shoreline and impacted its water and benthic (bottom) habitat, making the lagoon a true “urban estuary”.
Image of Tarpon Cove Restoration Island at sunrise in Lake Worth Lagoon Estuary
That is why, for the past 20+ years, Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and their partners have worked hard to restore habitat in the lagoon. Much of that restoration focused on restoring seagrass, saltmarsh, oyster reef and mangrove habitat on existing islands and building new habitat in areas impacted by development and dredging. This image shows created islands that are part of the 40-acre Tarpon Cove restoration project off the shoreline of the El Cid community in West Palm Beach. To date, ERM and their partners have restored over 200 acres of habitat in Lake Worth Lagoon.
Image of the American oystercatcher shore bird​​
Birds of all shapes, sizes and colors historically called Lake Worth Lagoon home, nesting on the natural islands that existed in the estuary. Many of these bird species would later be listed as threatened and endangered due to decreasing populations caused by development and habitat loss. The striking shorebirds in this image are American oystercatchers, a species listed as threatened by the state of Florida and the face of restoration success in the lagoon.
Image of researchers placing identification bands on shorebirds
That is because in 2004, decades after they disappeared from the lagoon, a pair of oystercatchers nested on ERM’s largest restoration project to date - Snook Islands Natural Area in Lake Worth Beach. These charismatic shorebirds use their brightly colored bills (which resemble an oyster shucking knife) to quickly snip the abductor muscle of unsuspecting oysters that are open and feeding just below the surface of the water. With the muscles snipped the birds can easily open the shells and extract a tasty meal. In this image, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists Natasha Warraich and Joe Marchionno place identification bands on young oystercatchers to monitor their movements and help state biologists understand population trends, movement and breeding success.
Image of staff preparing to release American Oystercatcher chicks after being banded
After years of nesting at Snook Islands Natural Area, more oystercatchers began to show up and nest on new restoration projects like Grassy Flats and Bryant Park, sparking interest from FWC to begin banding young birds born in the lagoon. Colored bands, consisting of a number, letter and color combination that can be viewed from a distance, are placed on chicks just before they are able to fly. Birds are given an overall health check by biologists as they are banded. Size, weight and other data is also collected for research. In this image, ERM biologists Dave Carson (aka the Godfather of the lagoon oystercatchers) and TJ Steinhoff release birds that received their health check and fancy new “jewelry".
Picture of American Oystercatcher chicks and adults reunited
Birds are quickly reunited with their parents, whom they will rely on for food for another month or so after taking flight. Pictured here are two banded chicks on Grassy Flats restoration project along with one of the parents preening its feathers in the morning light. In 2022, American oystercatcher pairs successfully nested on Bryant Park, Grassy Flats, Snook Islands and Tarpon Cove within Lake Worth Lagoon.
Environmental restoration at Palm Beach Resilient Island in Lake Worth Lagoon Estuary
Island creation/restoration is a major component of ERM’s restoration efforts. ERM biologists experiment with different design elements, but each project includes four main habitats: mangrove, salt marsh, oyster reef and seagrass. Each new island also includes a raised section topped with shell material and sand that serves as critical nesting habitat for American oystercatchers and other listed bird species. This image shows the construction of the Palm Beach Resilient Island, a lagoon restoration project that blossomed from a partnership with ERM and The Nature Conservancy. The rock structures protect mangroves and saltmarsh grasses (planted after construction) from boat wakes and waves while also providing structure for oyster recruitment. Around these rock structures is a shallow sandy bottom that will support mangroves, saltmarsh grasses, and seagrass. The excavator sits atop the newly-created shorebird nesting habitat.
Black skimmers and least tern shorebirds sharing space at Tarpon Cove Restoration in Lake Worth Lagoon
The American oystercatchers that now call Lake Worth Lagoon home are the southernmost nesting oystercatchers on the east coast of Florida. With the creation of more islands in the central lagoon, two more threatened species joined the party…black skimmers and least terns. These birds showed up in 2018, and by the summer of 2020 the black skimmers were nesting on the islands. The least terns followed the skimmers’ lead and began nesting in the summer of 2021. This image shows dozens of least terns above Tarpon Cove with the much larger black skimmers jockeying for space in the foreground.
Black skimmer shorebirds nesting
Like other shorebirds, black skimmers nest on open ground in sandy, shelly or rocky substrates. These birds rest and build nests in the same way, by using a “scraping” behavior that creates shallow depressions on the ground. In this image, you can see a bird on a nest with its mate right behind. During nesting, the male vigorously defends his small territory around the nest with different territorial displays. You can also see an unoccupied scrape to the left of the nesting female. Pairs make multiple scrapes during courtship and use them as resting spots throughout the season.
Close up of a black skimmer shorebird in flight
The bill of the black skimmer may look huge in profile, but when viewed head-on their bills are as thin as a knife blade. This gives these birds the ability to drag the longer lower bill through the surface of the water with minimal resistance as they fly just inches above the surface.​​
Picture showing the flight behavior of the black skimmer shore bird​​
Each day black skimmers spend hours on the wing foraging for food in the early morning and late evening, occasionally even into the darkness on the day's edge. These birds can forage in lower light conditions because skimmers are tactile feeders, meaning they do not target specific prey items like oystercatchers hunting oysters or least terns diving to capture fish. Instead skimmers drag their lower bill through the water until it comes in contact with a prey item, at which point their head and neck act as a “shock absorber” as their upper bill snaps shut and secures the fish.
Least Tern parent brining food to nesting chicks
Least terns have a completely different foraging strategy than their nesting neighbors the skimmers. As soon as the light allows them to  see their prey, these little dynamos are constantly flying around. They dive straight down into the water, securing their prey with their sharp bills before returning to the many hungry mouths that wait at the nesting colony. This image shows an adult returning to the nesting grounds with a food delivery as a very hungry youngster scampers around calling out to be fed.
Picture of Least Terns and Black Skimmer Shorebirds in Lake Worth Lagoon
Though black skimmers and least terns could not appear more different, they are often found together in the late spring and early summer during nesting season. Nesting together in large groups called colonies helps each species in multiple ways. Black skimmers benefit from the least terns’ aggressive behavior in defending their nesting colonies from intruders like gulls and other nest-raiding birds and animals. The terns almost certainly appreciate having some bigger and more intimidating neighbors that can join their team when they ward off threats. Both of these species need all the help they can get as the North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates the populations of both species have declined by almost 90% since 1966.
​​ Picture of Family of American Oystercatcher birds at Tarpon Cove Restoration in Lake Worth Lagoon Estuary
​So what does all this mean? Well, we like to think that our plucky and resilient estuary and all its inhabitants can teach us so much. Lake Worth Lagoon is a shining example of how even when we dramatically alter a resource we can still restore much of what was lost when governments, communities, businesses, advocacy groups and individuals work together. If we collectively do the small things each day, while supporting the bigger efforts that take years to accomplish, we can make so much progress as the incredible birds of Lake Worth Lagoon have shown us.​