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Bird Nesting Island In Tampa Bay To Be Preserved Forever

Sep 13, 2015

Four environmental groups recently sued the state over Amendment One, which overwhelmingly was passed by voters last year. They claim state officials are diverting money that should go into the state’s conservation land-buying fund. So other groups are trying to fill the gap. Recently, one of the most productive bird nesting islands in Tampa Bay was bought by the Audubon Society. WUSF takes us on a trip to Little Bird Key, and tells us why the group is trying to raise money to pay for it.

I hop aboard an outboard with Ann Paul, who manages Audubon Florida's Coastal Islands Sanctuaries. She points her boat to the newest wildlife refuge in Tampa Bay.

We just left Snead Island, just west of Bradenton, and in an Audubon Society boat, we only went a couple of hundred yards  to Terra Ceia Little Bird Key. It's a big clump of green in an arm of Tampa Bay. It's only maybe a football field away from a mobile home park - there's a big water storage tank in the back, so this is urban birding right on the water. And the fact that they were able to preserve this island is probably a small miracle in the way that so much of our coastline has been developed.

"It's absolutely a goldilocks island. It's just right for what the birds need in order to have a safe roosting and nesting area," says Paul. "We've got good neighbors with the Tropic Isles Mobile Home park. "

Tropic Isles mobile home park looms near Little Bird Key
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

It's a tiny island with a big payoff - Paul says Audubon researchers have recorded over 600 nests here in one season. You can find Brown Pelicans, herons, egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-crowned Night-Herons.

"We have a night heron here," she says. "Do you see him? He thinks we don't see him."

During our short tour of the island, I saw a dolphin cutting throught the water just north of Snead Island. To the northwest, the twin spans of the Sunshine Skyway poke the sky. Water floods across this small island at high tide, when the red mangroves stretch their roots to reach the sandy bay bottom.

I see kayaks from one of the mobile homes, a long stone's throw away. No Trespassing signs are posted around the island to make sure they don't come too close.

"And so we're here today, nesting is done for the year. You can see the island is very quiet, " says Paul. "However, the mangroves are so lush and so beautiful, this is one of the beautiful places on the planet."

Keeping out of sight
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

It's now part of Audubon Florida's Coastal Islands Sanctuaries - 30 islands along the Gulf Coast, from Citrus County to Charlotte Harbor. The group's stepped in where the state didn't.  This year's state budget includes less than 18 million dollars for buying conservation land. That's a fraction of what environmental groups say should be spent because of Amendment One And Paul says her group will probably have to keep purchasing islands like Little Bird Key.

"I don't know if the state had the opportunity this time," she says. "But the state land-buying program has been not very functional recently. And we're very sorry about that, and we're doing everything we can to change the status of Florida Forever."

The island was recently purchased for $6,000 just after it was put on the market. Paul says they didn't have money in their budget, but they considered preserving this rookery so essential that they're asking for help for its purchase - and longtime management.

"And so we were able to get permission from the Florida Audubon Society board members - everybody thought, wow, this is a great opportunity. Let's do this," she says. "And we wanted to step in before anyone else came along."

And she says that money would be used  to help manage the land forever, making sure that the white ibis and roseate spoonbills continue to fly over Tampa Bay.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News