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Celery Fields Birding Enthusiasts Hope Serenity Remains

Thousands of people drive by one of the best birding areas in Sarasota County every day without even knowing it. 

Celery Fields - so named for its former life as a farm - has become a must-see stopping off point for birders.

But stopping an industrial development planned on its fringes has become a rallying cry for birding enthusiasts.

A light rain is dripping down on a boardwalk just a stone's throw from Interstate 75. You wouldn't think a place this close to the busiest highway in West Central Florida would be one of the best birding areas, but Celery Fields defies a lot of expectations.  In the distance, an 80-foot-tall mountain that was created from dredge spoils when these wetlands were created some 20 to 30 years ago towers over the wetlands.

Jeanne Dubi, the native of Wales is a past president of the Audubon Society here in Sarasota, and is a walking encyclopedia of all things bird. She walks up the hill as I-75 hums along less than a mile away to the west. The Fruitville Road interchange is visible behind a series of lakes and wetlands.

"So look how extensive the fields are," she says, waving her hand from atop the hill. "Birds need space - they don't like these little pockets. People think that because birds fly, they'll go from one pocket to another pocket, but actually their territory is quite extensive, and they need a large area."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Jeanne Dubi walks down the hill

This serenity is threatened, she fears, by a proposed recycling center for construction and demolition debris. Earlier this month, Dubi and about 130 other people went to a meeting of the Sarasota Planning Commission to protest the center.

"We were concerned that heavy trucks cause vibrations, and all animals and birds can feel that very keenly," she said. "Noise is a big issue for birds. See that sort of large pond area there, we have birds all around there breeding. And so that's really in close proximity to that."

The recycling center is planned for 16 acres butting up against the Celery Fields, on land originally bought by the county to retain stormwater. The construction debris would tower 35 feet over the surrounding wetlands.

Planning commission members voted to recommend its rejection, but vice chair Andy Stultz said their decision had little to do with the birds.

"I think the safeguards were in place for the operation to protect the Celery Fields," he said during that June 1 meeting. "I  truly do believe that. So ultimately, it was a traffic issue for me."

The peeps of purple martins flocking to a birdhouse near the Audubon Society's state-of-the-art nature center here are all that competes with nearby traffic - for now.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Purple martins at the Audubon Nature Center

Dubi says they've recorded 226 species of birds in these 400 acres. They started coming shortly after the wetlands were dredged for stormwater retention in the 1990's.

"Spoonbills, we have here. We have nesting bald eagles about a mile away - they use this for their supermarket. This has been a gigantic success," she said. "There's no question about it. You know, if you build it, they will come."

She hopes the recycling center grounds will be incorporated into Celery Fields, and that a farm  to the south could also be purchased by the county.

And even though the planning commission focused on traffic, Dubi says it's rare environmentalists bested developers on any vote.

"But we'll take the win," she said. "We'll take the win any way we can get it."

She says when county commissioners do vote later this summer, she hopes they'll choose to keep Celery Fields as it is, forever.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Flowers at the Audubon Nature Center

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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