Photo by: Liz Longstreet
Have you ever wondered what a coastal habitat restoration event looks and feels like? A group of volunteers and staff spent three days on Little Bayou Bird Island pulling out invasive species, replanting native trees and bushes, and hauling out trash to create new nesting habitat!
Along Florida’s coast, invasive plants have taken root, their growth crowding out native species. Unfortunately, these invasive trees and shrubs are not strong enough to support the nests of Florida’s diverse wading birds. To increase habitat for pelicans, herons, egrets, storks, and more, Audubon Florida works to restore plant communities to provide additional nesting space for birds.
This fall, the Audubon team tackled invasive species in St. Petersburg along Little Bayou Bird Island. The protected habitat provides a home to a small but raucous group of baby birds each spring. In 2019, Ann Paul, Audubon Florida’s Regional Coordinator for the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, counted heron, egret, and cormorant nests at the island In addition, the site is a valuable wintering roost for Brown Pelicans and a variety of herons and egrets.
Today, the island is owned by the State of Florida and managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as part of the Pinellas Aquatic Preserve. Audubon’s Coastal Island Sanctuaries staff provide management assistance by posting "no trespassing" signs, conducting surveys, and removing entangled fishing line from the trees.
Though native mangroves grow along the shoreline, the interior of the island had been invaded by non-native Brazilian pepper trees, which both crowd the remaining mangroves and eliminate native coastal hammock species. Audubon applied for funds to remove the non-native trees and replant the island with native species, and we received a small grant from the Palden Foundation at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay for this purpose. The grant will be matched next fall, when the Aquatic Preserve and Audubon staff return with funding from the State to check on the island, re-treat any re-emergent Brazilian peppers, and replace any trees or shrubs that do not survive.
Working with Pinellas Aquatic Preserve Manager Randy Runnels and his staff, as well as with help from the St. Petersburg Parks Department to stage plants and equipment in a nearby park, Audubon Sanctuary Manager Mark Rachal, Paul, and a volunteer team worked for three days to improve the habitats on Little Bayou Bird Island.
The team used saws and clippers to chop down the Brazilian peppers, treated the stumps with herbicide to prevent resprouting, and piled the branches in stacks five feet wide and five feet high. Whew! A full day’s work for the whole crew.
175 native trees and shrubs were planted and watered. Moving this many trees and shrubs to the island required several trips using outboard motorboats, underlining the important role the City Parks Department played by providing a staging area for the plant transport effort.
Audubon and the team planted native buttonwoods, gumbo limbos, strangler figs, cedars, cabbage palms, white stoppers, seagrapes, Florida privets, and firebushes, carefully watering each individual plant. Once again, the City Parks staff provided help, bringing water to the nearby boat ramp in a water truck and filling a tank on a state-owned motorboat. Everyone was thrilled when additional rain soaked the island that night.
A smaller crew returned to the island to repeat the watering and check the status of the plants. Rain soaked the island at least twice with steady downpours. In addition, volunteers collected trash and fishing line from the island and its shores.
Looking to the Future
To avoid disturbing any nesting activity, Audubon completed planting in November and, happily, all the planted trees and shrubs survived their first month. . Thank you to Audubon staff Mark Rachal, Ann Paul, and Jeff Liechty, Pinellas Aquatic Preserve staff, City of St. Petersburg Parks staff, as well as volunteers from St. Petersburg and Lake Region Audubon, the University of South Florida, and the Friends of the Tampa Bay Refuges, who gave generously of their time, hard work, and sweat equity!
Audubon Florida works to protect birds and the places they need to survive and thrive. By actively restoring coastal hammock habitat on predator-free and conservation-managed bird islands, we create the additional habitat that wading birds can use to raise their vulnerable young.