The coastal islands of Florida’s peninsular west coast have long been refugia for nesting waterbirds. Herons, egrets, pelicans, and spoonbills blanket the trees with nests in the thousands, and the breeze carries the clamor of begging chicks. Audubon wardens and biologists have protected these vulnerable places from persecution and disturbance for 85 years and are now mounting a defense against the next biggest threat: our changing climate.
While working in the policy sphere to address the causes of climate change, we must also work on the ground. By making sure the places upon which birds depend are as healthy and resilient as possible, we help them weather the effects of sea level rise, increased storm intensity and frequency, and more.
At the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary in Tampa Bay—a pair of globally important rookery islands leased from and managed in collaboration with The Mosaic Company and Port Tampa Bay—Audubon Sanctuary Manager Mark Rachal is overseeing an essential restoration. Over the last 20 years, invasive exotic Brazilian pepper and leadtree have been squeezing out the island’s native trees, reducing and eliminating important nesting, foraging and roosting habitat for imperiled coastal birds. With generous support from the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Restore America’s Estuaries and more than 250 individual donors, invasive trees are being removed this winter from four sanctuary islands in Hillsborough Bay to restore over 20 acres. Replanting them with native trees will maximize the island’s value to birds like Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Brown Pelicans. By ensuring this critically important habitat is performing at its very best, we can help buffer these vulnerable species from other effects of climate change that cannot be so easily controlled.
Increasingly, Alafia Bank and other rookery islands in the region are also suffering from erosion from sea level rise combined with higher storm-driven waves and larger boat wakes. Islands suffering from erosion not only shrink but suffer the overwash of ground nests and the toppling of nesting trees. With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), Audubon is embarking on an ambitious four-year project to use offshore structures to create calm water shorelines and habitat for fish and oysters. Some of these are already in place at Alafia Bank and were proven in recent storms, with shorelines and nesting birds successfully protected by the structures. NFWF’s grant enables the completion of protections at Alafia and at four other rookeries in Manatee and Pinellas counties. Not only does this work help birds, it serves as a demonstration of green infrastructure alternatives to seawalls and other harmful coastal structures.
As our climate changes and sea levels rise, Audubon science and policy are working hand in hand to help our coastal birds weather the storm.