Mark Rachal steps into the 20-foot center console skiff, throwing rope lines back into the boat and motoring towards the Richard T. Paul Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary. As he moves away from the boat launch, Brown Pelicans, Forster’s Terns, and Great Egrets wheel across the blue sky overhead, a testament to the importance of the bird habitat here, not only during nesting season but year-round.
As Sanctuary Manager, Rachal is charged with inspecting nearly 5,000 feet of newly installed living shoreline breakwater arrays along the north shores of both Sunken and Bird Islands, the two islands of the Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary. Alafia Banks is a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-designated Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) and is leased from and managed in collaboration with The Mosaic Company and Port Tampa Bay as a bird sanctuary.
Over the years, erosion from ship wakes and storm events threatened these nesting sites. Audubon has been working to devise a more resilient future by offsetting sea level rise as well as storm surges and waves.
In 2011, Audubon began construction of a new living shoreline breakwater near the edge of Sunken Island. The concrete wave attenuation devices — known as WADs — that make up the breakwater intercept incoming wave energy before it hits the shoreline, slowing or even stopping erosion altogether. The calm water between the island and the breakwater provides foraging and nesting habitat. Phases 1 and 2 — encompassing 1,000 linear feet near the shore of Sunken Island — were completed in 2014.
Rachal cruises past the long-finished segments of the living shoreline to the active construction area along the two islands. This fall, Rachal and his team worked with Living Shorelines Solutions and Cypress Gulf Development to install an additional 5,000 feet — nearly a mile! — of additional living shoreline along both Bird and Sunken Islands, bringing the total area of protected coastline to over 6,000 linear feet. Set in 500-foot sections separated by 12-foot gaps for marine animal access, the breakwater allows water to flow through to the shallow, quiet water lagoon. With the project’s completion, Rachal says, “the Alafia Banks CWA will be better protected from erosion problems,” aiding the vulnerable native bird species that nest here.
This fall and early winter, contractors have worked with Rachal and his team to remove an additional threat to native birds: invasive plants. They may look pretty, but Brazilian peppers, lead trees, and more are crowding out the mangroves and native trees that birds require for nesting.
Audubon Florida has been working to monitor, manage, and protect the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary since 1934.