It’s been 16 months since Hurricane Michael barreled into the panhandle of Florida and the recovery efforts are still ongoing. During the storm, parts of many people’s homes and docks were ripped up and ended up floating in Gulf waters. During the weeks that followed, much of this debris was deposited on the area’s beaches, barrier islands, and shorelines. Because they are in remote areas, much of this debris remains today.
Earlier this month, Audubon Florida and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff teamed up to remove 1,020 lbs of hurricane debris from one of the Panhandle's most remarkable wildlife areas. About 0.7 miles South of Lanark Village sits Lanark Reef Critical Wildlife Area, a beautiful island on the Forgotten Coast of Florida. The six-mile-long island is a breeding area for many species of wading birds, shorebirds, and seabirds. These species include Brown Pelicans, Gull-billed Terns, and two Florida State threatened species: American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers.
Lanark Reef has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area due to the number of American Oystercatchers (more than 110 at a time) that use the area during the non-breeding season. Some of the migratory birds that use the flats around the island include federally-listed Red Knot and Piping Plover. Large concentrations of American Oystercatchers and Marbled Godwits can be seen roosting on the flats. State-threatened Snowy Plovers mix with Piping Plovers to feed along the shoreline. It’s not unusual for surveyors to see hundreds of migratory Sanderlings, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitchers.
Because Lanark Reef was considered critical habitat for nesting and migratory shorebirds, Audubon purchased this piece of land in 2012, and the FWC designated the island as a Critical Wildlife Area and closed the land and surrounding waters to create an undisturbed sanctuary for these birds.
Nesting on the island begins in February and can continue through October. To prevent disturbing the nesting birds, the debris was allowed to remain on the island until this winter. As soon as there was an opportunity Audubon Florida and FWC staff headed out to the island with boats, garbage bags, hand saws, and determination. Large structures, such as dock pieces, can act as cover for animals like rats and raccoons, which will prey on eggs and flightless chicks. Several dock sections had to be sawed apart and removed by boat. Another threatening piece of debris? A set of wooden dock stairs. When the team approached the island, a Bald Eagle stretched its wings and flew away. Surrounding the stairs were feathers and intestines, evidence that raptors had been using this as a perch while eating seabirds!
Other items found on the island include: glass doors, boat cushions, boat fenders, boards, a shoe, shotgun shells, a hat, buoys, and plastic bottles. Permitted researchers have also removed small items off the island during weekly and biweekly surveys: plastic bags, stray waterfowl decoys, bottles, balloons, and inflatable pool toys!
Thanks to the combined efforts of Audubon staff, volunteers, and FWC partners, we could clear these important coastal areas just in time for the upcoming nesting season.