Chapters & Centers

CLI Alum Studies the Threatened Wading Birds of Grassy Lake

Caitlin Westerfield works with West Pasco Audubon Society on an important bird survey initiative.

by Caitlin Westerfield, CLI alum.

March 3, 2021

Once a week, just minutes after sunrise, I venture out to a small tract of wilderness, armed with binoculars, a small notepad, and a mind fueled by a fresh cup of coffee. The tranquil stillness of the early morning air is interrupted by the occasional raucous call of a Sandhill Crane, while wading birds and flocks of ducks rouse themselves to forage among the reeds and grasses. I play the part of the silent observer, recording the activity unfolding in front of me. These mornings are when I conduct my research, and my “field station” is a bird blind on a basin marsh called Grassy Lake, which is tucked away in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be at the helm of a research project for West Pasco Audubon Society, I would’ve doubted it. But now, here I am. 

My journey with Audubon began late in the fall of 2019, when I was first introduced to Audubon Florida through a year-long program for college students called the Conservation Leadership Initiative (CLI). We were assigned mentors who, metaphorically speaking, took us under their wing to help us navigate the intricacies of the birding and conservation world. My mentor, Christine Rowland of the West Pasco Audubon Society, actively sought out opportunities for me, and at the end of my tenure as a CLI student she proposed an idea: partnering with her on a research study. 

With permission from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, West Pasco built a bird blind overlooking Grassy Lake in Starkey Park - grant-funded by Duke Energy - to contribute to conservation research. West Pasco Audubon sought to conduct a year-long survey on the threatened Florida wading bird species that inhabit Grassy Lake, to examine patterns in habitat use compared to variables like water depth and seasonality. With Christine as my mentor, I became the project lead. I drafted the design of the study, presented it to the West Pasco Board of Directors, and recruited volunteers to help survey Grassy Lake for at least five mornings each week. 

The study is now running along smoothly, and I am excited to see it progress further. Besides contributing to wildlife conservation, the study also provides a mutually beneficial arrangement for both West Pasco Audubon and myself; I’ve been given the opportunity to expand my horizons as a young, newly-graduated environmental scientist, while my work helps bring visibility to the organization and invigorates the members of the West Pasco chapter.

It is critical that young birders carry on the legacy of the Audubon Society and accept the torch when it is passed to us. I believe I have contributed to that effort by recruiting fledgling conservationists as part of my study team, including two students who were previously unaffiliated with Audubon. They have developed a passion for birding and integrated themselves into the organization, with one volunteer becoming a part of this year’s Conservation Leadership Initiative cohort. 

As I’ve come to learn, this study is not just about protecting the birds we study and reporting on the gathered data, it is also about giving back to the organization that has presented me (and others) with so many wonderful and unique opportunities. One day, I will look back fondly on all that I’ve gained from my experience with the West Pasco Audubon Society, and the Audubon Society as whole. But for now, I am still content to venture out at the crack of dawn, binoculars in hand, to survey the birds in the hazy morning light. 

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