Downtown Miami

Miami bird-watching cruises combine nature and beauty

From injury to the wild: Teresa Sepetauc of Pelican Harbor Seabird Station prepares to release a rehabilitated brown pelican during a sunset birding cruise.
From injury to the wild: Teresa Sepetauc of Pelican Harbor Seabird Station prepares to release a rehabilitated brown pelican during a sunset birding cruise. For the Miami Herald

Passengers aboard a Pelican Harbor Seabird Station sunset birding cruise this month had a National Geographic-worthy moment just 15 minutes into the two-hour trip.

Wildlife-rehabilitation manager Teresa Sepetauc wearily identified a flock of black vultures swarming above the privately owned Bird Key Rookery, a stone’s throw from Seabird Station, just south of the 79th Street Causeway.

“That usually means there’s something dead on the island,” she said.

Many of the 30 or so people on deck raised their binoculars for a better view. One of them, Seabird Station Director Christopher Scott Boykin, could barely hush his own excitement.

“Bald eagle on the island!” he whisper-shouted. “Right here, people! Oh, my God. Get your cameras, please!”

Underneath the circling, cawing vultures, our national bird sat perched in a tree, its taxi-colored beak dropping every few seconds to strip out a seagull’s guts. Just as people on the boat began to train their lenses on the eagle, it flew away, the uneaten carcass clutched in its yellow-orange claws.

The last time Boykin saw a bald eagle was five years ago, as it flew from a nearby boat ramp to the rookery, owned in part by Finlay Matheson, whose family owned much of Key Biscayne in the early 1900s. Other special and rare sightings include flamingos. “We have flamingos that visit from Cuba, the Bahamas, as well as Mexico,” Boykin said, going back to the eagle, “but that was pretty awesome.”

The Seabird Station was founded in 1980 for the purpose of caring for injured brown pelicans. It now serves as a rehabilitation facility for all types of wild animals, who are eventually returned to their natural habitats by the station’s small team of volunteers. Last year, the station took in a record 1,968 birds and other sick, injured, orphaned and displaced animals. About 10 percent were pelicans that had ingested fishing hooks.

“We get quite a diversity of animals at the center,” said Boykin, who has been the director for four months. For the past 12 years, he worked as the project coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

‘Worst smell’

The Seabird Station helps its fair share of vultures, too, which Sepetauc explained to cruise passengers is not for the faint of heart.

“One of their defenses when they’re afraid is to throw up their food,” she said. “They eat dead, rotting things so that’s fun when we get them in. It is quite a smell. It’s probably the worst smell in the world.”

The monthly sunset cruises, which are a joint venture between the seabird station and Miami-Dade County, started last spring as a way to engage and teach people about different types of birds in South Florida while providing memorable, fun and educational experiences. It brings together a mix of budding bird enthusiasts, avid bird watchers and plenty of people without any prior bird knowledge.

The $40 charge helps fund expenses for the station, like medical supplies and fish for the birds to eat, a $30,000 annual expense. As an added bonus, the boat takes passengers toward Miami’s skyline, stopping in front of Pérez Art Museum Miami before heading back to the station’s dock.

This month’s cruise included passengers like Judy and Bob Mangasarian of Coral Gables, who have been donors to the Seabird Station for more than a decade.

Building awareness

“It’s nice to have experts point out the different birds,” Bob Mangasarian said, the sky casting an orange glow from the setting sun. “Any awareness the program can bring to help the bird population is worth it.”

Cruise passengers learned that the majority of injuries that wildlife sustain are from man-made causes, like plastic six-pack holders that entrap them and other types of litter, including leftover fishing lines.

The ground of Bird Key Rookery is covered in garbage. Plastic bottles, rubber tires, Styrofoam coolers, glass and aluminum have washed up there. Since it’s not managed by the county and people aren’t allowed on the protected rookery, cleanup efforts have failed.

“One of the reasons why it’s important not to walk on or get too close to bird rookeries is because mother birds will fly away from their nests, and crows and other predatory birds will swoop in and eat the eggs or the young,” Boykin said.

Some of the most popular bird sightings at the rookery include turkey vultures, white ibises, double-crested cormorants and brown pelicans. Two volunteers on the cruise check off birds seen at the rookery on a list containing 29 types of birds that have been spotted there during past visits. Now, the American bald eagle will be added.

Just before the eagle sighting, Sepetauc released a rehabilitated brown pelican from the boat, marking the fourth bird released that day.

If you go

What: Miami sunset birding cruises.

When: Monthly, check website for details: pelicanharbor.org.

Cost: $40 per passenger for a two-hour trip.

Contact: 305-751-9840 or info@pelicanharbor.org.

More info

▪ People who find injured or orphaned wild animals are encouraged to take them to Pelican Harbor Seabird Station for rehabilitation (1279 NE 79th St.) or call 305-751-9840.

▪ The station is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for visitors; tours are free with advance notice; donations accepted.

▪ The station is seeking volunteers as well as student interns.

▪ A March 14 fundraiser at Newport Beachside Hotel will celebrate the station’s 35th anniversary.

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