If you have had the pleasure of cruising off the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary in Hillsborough Bay near dusk, you know something remarkable occurs. In the mellowing light, thousands of birds from all directions can be seen flying to the Audubon sanctuary, two small mangrove-lined islands near the mouth of the Alafia River, not far from the Mosaic Fertilizer plant.
Among the many species that inhabit the largest wading bird colony on Florida’s west coast are roseate spoonbill, white ibis, glossy ibis, oystercatcher, reddish egret, brown pelican, yellow-crowned night-heron, snowy ibis, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, tri-colored heron and little blue heron.
What I wrote for a 2002 Tampa Tribune commentary article still occurs today: “The birds fly alone, in pairs and in V-shaped flocks. Depending on the species, they scamper onto the sandy shore, plop onto the vegetation or land in the shallows. The bank is a cacophony of whistle, trills and squawks. The earthy odor of guano permeates the fresh salt air.”
The sanctuary is a marvel, but also an endangered one. Yet this is not a case of industrial polluters or haphazard development posing the threat. The landowners – Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC, and Port Tampa Bay, each of whom own sections of the Alafia Banks – are conscientious stewards, working closely with National Audubon Society, which manages the sanctuary as part of its Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries.
In contrast, the threat comes from careless boaters who disturb the birds, sometimes causing them to abandon their nests or nestlings.
Ann Paul, Audubon’s Tampa Bay Area Regional Coordinator, has patrolled the islands for 27 years and seen has seen all manner of bad behavior.
Though signs have long informed boaters to stay off the land, she has seen people allowing their dogs to run amok on the island, terrifying the birds and destroying nests.
“I’ve have seen people picnicking right in front of a ‘keep out sign’,” she said.
Some visitors seem to get a kick out of scaring birds into flight.
Crab fishermen and wade fisherman who come too close also frighten the birds.
Even nature lovers can be part of the problem. Paul explained, “We have trouble with nature tours” that take photographers seeking spectacular shots close to the shore.
The Florida Aquarium’s Bay Spirit II 72-foot catamaran will schedule special tours to the refuge, but its crew is vigilant about protecting the birds. The Aquarium and Audubon have collaborated since the attraction opened, and I have taken Audubon-organized trips off the Sanctuary on the Aquarium’s vessel.
Most boaters do respect the sanctuary, but there remain too many individuals who simply don’t care about the birds or the rules protecting them. The impact of their thoughtlessness is not trivial. Paul explained, “When adult birds are scared off their nests by the presence of people illegally entering a nesting colony, the vulnerable eggs and small young can be killed by exposure to the elements and predation by fish crows or night-herons. Intrusion at the wrong time of year can lead to the abandonment of an entire colony and the death of the eggs and young.”
Continued disruptions, or a major one, can cause birds to give up a roosting area altogether. That is what is suspected to have happened at Seahorse Key, a major seabird colony near Cedar Key that the birds abruptly left a few years ago.
The loss of the Alafia Banks bird colony would be a disaster for Florida’s shore bird population. The sanctuary hosts 5,000 to 10,000 nesting pairs of shore birds each year. The sanctuary hosts the largest nesting population of spoonbills in Florida, with 200 pairs coming there to raise their young each spring.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, some of Florida’s wading birds that utilize the sanctuary, including the tricolored heron, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, and little blue heron, are threatened or in decline.
Fortunately, the sanctuary recently was given additional protections, which merit boaters’ attention. It already had been designated a Critical Wildlife Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and its shore was made off limits to visitors.
Because this did not eliminate the harassment of the birds, the FWC voted in 2016 to extend the Critical Wildlife Area, creating a buffer zone around the sanctuary where boats are prohibited.
The commission posted warning signs around the islands earlier this year, creating what Paul calls a “virtual fence” 100 feet from the islands.
Diane Hirth, Habitat and Species Conservation Communications Coordinator for the FWC, said, “Violation of the posted boundary is a second-degree misdemeanor.” In Florida, a second-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
That seems the least punishment culprits should deserve. With signage on land and in the water, no one can profess ignorance of the sanctuary’s significance. Anyone who ventures past the signs knowingly endangers Florida’s most important wading bird colony. Mosaic is working with Audubon on a video to inform boaters of the rules.
Ironically, the sanctuary’s two islands – Bird Island to the east and Sunken Island to the west - are man-made. They were formed from dredge material when a Tampa shipping channel was deepened in the 1920s. The area has been a bird sanctuary since 1934.
In 2006, it was appropriately renamed for Ann Paul’s late husband, Richard (Rich) T. Paul, the long-time manager of Audubon of Florida’s Coastal Island Sanctuaries. Paul was a passionate wildlife defender who had a gift for helping people of all political outlooks appreciate natural Florida. Ann Paul is an equally accomplished environmentalist who is dedicated to building partnerships to advance conservation.
The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners had good reason to choose Paul as this year’s recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Forever Hillsborough Conservation Award. Paul is chairing the Florida Birding and Nature Festival here in the fall, which should attract birders from near and far.
As a bird lover, Paul wants the public to be able to marvel at the beauty of the birds flocking to the sanctuary. She just wants them to do it from a prudent distance. That is not too much to ask. And now, thanks to the FWC’s buffer, it’s the law.
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune