Sally Swartz: Dumping dirty water threatens Bird Island

Florida’s newest Critical Wildlife Area, a tiny bird island in the Indian River Lagoon near Sewall’s Point, has survived erosion, hurricanes and the curiosity of boaters and fishermen. Now it faces a challenge – again – from an early dumping of Lake Okeechobee’s murky water.

The 1.5 acre spoil island, created from sand dredged from the lagoon’s bottom in the 1940s, remains a favorite gathering place for more than 40 different kinds of birds and a nesting choice for at least 15 bird species.

Aerial view of Bird Island. (Photo by Greg Braun)
Aerial view of Bird Island. (Photo by Greg Braun)

Martin County’s Bird Island in some ways is even more popular than Pelican Island, the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge in Indian River County.

Why do birds love the island and keep coming back?

Ecologist Greg Braun, speaking to about 140 Martin residents at a Florida Oceanographic Society lecture last week, cites location, plus continued help from environmental advocates, government and residents.

Located too far from Sewall’s Point shores for such predators as raccoons to swim to it, the island at one point was stripped of all non-native trees and shrubs. Establishing healthy native plantings took years.

Wind and waves eroded the shoreline, so Martin County, which leases the land from Florida, won grants to build a protective breakwater north of the island.

When boaters and fishermen get too close to nesting birds, Braun said, determined Sewall’s Point residents use megaphones to yell “Stay away from the island!”

The endangered wood storks, oyster catchers, roseate spoonbills and others, unaware of all the protective activity, continue to show up at the island, along with white ibis, ospreys, double-crested cormorants and magnificent frigatebirds. The wood storks and others return year after year.

Nesting birds have faced other challenges, Braun said, such as marauding fish crows. These bird-world predators often strike when boaters or fishermen frighten parents away from nests, eating eggs or attacking hatchlings. Some birds get entangled in fishing lines.

The 2004 hurricanes blasted Bird Island, and plantings of mature black and red mangroves and sea grapes were uprooted.

And, while the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission posted polite “Please Keep Out” signs, many ignored them. Enforcement was difficult, Braun said. With no statute, for example, showing that chicks died because parents were frightened off nests was impossible to prove.

Since the FWC has declared the island a Critical Wildlife Area, more penalties come into play, ranging from warnings and fines as high as $500 to seizure of boats and equipment.

The effects of discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which surround the island with dirty, murky water, are easier to see, Braun said. “If you’re a bird that relies on seeing your prey, you’re going to leave the area, if you can. If you can’t see fish (to catch them to feed hatchlings), your chicks will die.”’

Summer discharges of dirty lake water are less troubling to Bird Island residents than those in the spring, when nesting season is at its height.

“This year is a problem,” Braun said, because so much water is being discharged now. “This may turn out to not be a good nesting season.”

Helping nesting birds on this little island turns out to be one more reason the state should buy sugar industry land south of the lake. Storing and cleaning water there, before sending it to the Everglades, would let the island’s birds fish clean waters to feed their hungry hatchlings.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz


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