RIVERVIEW — Tampa bird enthusiast Herbert Mills heard about the colorful, wriggling beauties tucked in the “wilderness” of Tampa Bay and set out to see for himself. What he found upon landing his boat there in 1933 took his breath away — a horrific scene of death.
An entire wading bird colony had been shot and plundered for the lavish plumes of the ibis and egrets nesting there — feathers taken to adorn ladies’ hats.
Bird carcases lay strewn across Green Key, their babies left dying in their nests, according to Mills’ writings.
Today, an expanse of islands between Charlotte County to the south and Citrus County to the north is teeming with the twitterings of bird life, new life, thanks to the push Mills made to protect them.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, which came about because that early Tampa pathologist and avid birder didn’t just walk away.
❖ ❖ ❖
Audubon Florida caretakers Mark Rachal and Ann Paul oversee some 30 natural and man-made island sanctuaries, where thousands of wading birds and shorebirds make their nests and rear their young each year.
In Hillsborough County some 18,000 nesting pairs of 16 to 20 bird species nestle in the mangroves and sand on the Alafia Banks sanctuary, not far from the mouth of the Alafia River. It is one of the largest nesting colonies in Florida and one of the most diverse colonies in the continental United States.
Donning a GPS and binoculars Rachal, a biologist, heads out in a boat bearing the name of former islands manager Rich Paul, to observe bird life during the height of nesting season.
“The beach nesters are gearing up, the laughing gulls, skimmers and terns. The reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons and cormorants all have chicks,” Rachal said, rounding Sunken Island in Hillsborough Bay. “The pelicans are late this year and in fewer numbers.” Still, the big brown birds are busy tugging on palm tree roots and carrying sticks to their nests, in preparation.
Not everything is as it should be, however. An adult brown pelican hangs dead under a grouping of nests, entangled in fishing line.
“This year marks the 20th anniversary of our fishing-gear cleanup,” Rachal said. “This is something Ann is really working on,” trying to educate the public about how to properly handle fishing gear so this doesn’t happen.
Going onto the island to remove the dead pelican might cause the nesting pairs above it to flee, abandoning their nests. So, Rachal moves on.
White pelicans bob off the island’s coast. Glossy ibis fly in, as white ibis fly out, heading inland to forage for food. American oystercatchers twitter on the shoreline, protecting small scrapes in the sand where they’ve laid speckled eggs. Two rows of enormous cement reef balls sit just offshore from the nests, placed there by Audubon Florida to protect the shoreline from erosion.
❖ ❖ ❖
Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida, knows the history of the bird islands well. Back when Mills convinced Audubon Florida to hire a warden to protect the bird colonies, Fred Schultz took the job, she said. Mills paid his salary.
“Some of the difficulties we have today are the same as what Fred was working on back then, like trespassers,” she said.
In those early days, Schultz spent a lot of time running off those who would harm the birds and also spent a lot of time talking with the locals. He convinced them to stop the cultural tradition of killing baby ibis for “curlew purlew” on Fourth of July and why it was a bad idea to target practice on the ibis as they flew over what was known as Adamsville, near Gibsonton.
Even today, though, there are still issues with trespassers.
“A healthy colony is noisy, smelly, very active,” Paul said. “It’s very obvious there is a lot going on there. If people go on and chase the adult birds off their nests, the aerial predators can come in and steal the eggs and eat them and eat the chicks.
“If the baby birds jump out onto the ground, they can’t fly back up and if they get lost, the parents can’t necessarily find them,” Paul explained.
All of these places can be reached by boat.
“And we have so many boaters out in our region. Everybody loves being out on the water. There are some places where it is fine for somebody to be and some places where if you are there at the wrong time of year, you could destroy the nesting season,” Paul said.
Audubon produces boat guides to help steer boaters clear of the islands.
“We give credit to a lot of the boaters that have really embraced the concept of going to enjoy the island, but being able to let the birds nest in peace,” she said. “That has really been a process that is making a difference for bird populations in the region.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Today, one of the major undertakings for Audubon is placement of the “reef balls” that protect the island shorelines from ships’ wakes and heavy winds. It is an ongoing and expensive undertaking. The reef balls get placed as money becomes available, either through donations or grant money, Paul said.
It truly does take the entire community to protect these birds, Paul said.
“From the Tampa Bay region, including Sarasota Bay and all the way up to North Pinellas, we have the largest colonial waterbird population outside of the Everglades,” Paul said. “I think it is because we’ve had 80 years of Audubon leadership and the entire community working together on this issue, protecting these spectacular natural resources. These birds are so emblematic about what we love about our state.
“When we are out at the bay edge and we see a flock of black skimmers fly by at sunset, it reaches us on an emotional level and tells us how our bay is doing.
“It takes the whole community to make this work,” Paul said. “Everybody has to be part of it. Audubon reaches out and has a lot of corporate and individual donors, which we absolutely rely on to pay for the salary of the staff. But it takes everyone.”