Florida’s remarkable symphony of birds

Pelicans rest on Pelican Island, Fla., the first reservation in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Pelicans rest on Pelican Island, Fla., the first reservation in the National Wildlife Refuge System. AP

Florida is a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise particularly when it comes to the abundance, diversity and beauty of its birds. Watching sandpipers dart back and forth between the waves, seeing a pelican dive beak-first into a school of fish, or watching a reddish egret dance in the shallows as it chases its prey: These are all Florida scenes that delight residents and tourists alike. But we owe this rich bounty of bird life to the vision and actions of those conservation leaders who came before us.

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt saw the vulnerability of Florida’s iconic birds and the need to protect their rookeries from plume and market hunters. With the encouragement of the Florida Audubon Society, he drew a circle on a map around a small teardrop-shaped islet of mangrove hammocks in the Indian River Lagoon, home to herons, terns, ibises, roseate spoonbills and his favorite — brown pelicans. It was appropriately called Pelican Island. And in 1903 with a simple “I so declare it,” President Roosevelt established Pelican Island as America’s first National Wildlife Refuge (located off A1A, north of Vero Beach).

Fast forward to today. With over 20 million Floridians and nearly 100 million visitors annually, it is abundantly clear that our wildlife faces great challenges. Bold actions are needed to protect wildlife when and where it is most vulnerable.

Fortunately, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has an effective tool to accomplish the needed protection. Critical Wildlife Areas can be designated by the FWC, with the support of the land owner, to manage access in order to protect wildlife.

The first CWA in Florida was established in 1977. Now there are 20 CWAs scattered throughout the state, but new designations have languished. In fact, none had been established since the early 1990s.

So after a period of 21 years without a new CWA, the FWC created Bird Island CWA in Martin County in 2014 and then Second Chance Island CWA in Collier County in 2015. At Bird Island, where 17 different species have nested, wood stork nest productivity is up by 25 percent since the CWA was established.

CWAs are relatively small areas, often just a few acres, but they have a concentrated abundance of wildlife. Most are shoals, mangrove or spoil islands, and sandbars. Like Pelican Island, many are on publicly-managed lands, while a few are voluntarily created with a cooperative private landowner.

The CWAs are a particularly effective and efficient conservation tool, designed to protect wildlife from human disturbance during the most critical life stages. To see a Critical Wildlife Area in person is to witness a symphony of bird species.

For nesting birds, CWAs are lifesaving. Science has well documented that when birds are disturbed during the critical nesting period, they often temporarily abandon their nests, leaving their eggs or hatchlings vulnerable to the sun and predators. Many of these disturbances are unintended and are simply the result of people or pets being too close at the wrong time. Unfortunately, repeated disturbances can result in the complete failure of an entire shorebird nesting colony. This is devastating for imperiled Florida species such as least terns, American oystercatchers and black skimmers.

Because the threats to our wildlife are great, we must accelerate the pace of our conservation efforts. For this reason the FWC plans to identify other potential CWA sites by its June Commission meeting and begin the necessary work with landowners and stakeholders to bring the right areas to the commission for final designation as CWAs in November.

What is past is prologue, and history repeats itself. More than a century after the collaborative work to save the birds of Pelican Island, the FWC, Audubon and other partners are moving forward with this CWA initiative to protect our native birds at moments in their lives when they are most vulnerable. It is an effort that should be embraced by all who love wild Florida – not just birders, but sportsmen, anglers, photographers, wildlife watchers, paddlers and recreational boaters alike. Florida’s iconic bird species gave birth to the wildlife conservation movement, and those who value wildlife in Florida do well to honor that legacy.

President Theodore Roosevelt said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."

Nowhere is that more true than Florida, with its incredible wildlife diversity and unique habitats. Florida’s wildlife, and particularly bird life, deserves the chance to simply have a safe place to raise their young. Let’s all do our part and join the effort to safeguard those important places so this spectacular legacy is passed on to the next generation.

Brian Yablonski is chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.