Two Hoots and a Holler

The President’s Hoot
Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
May 2005

Last week I received two good and one bad news reports. First the good news reports.

Not seen in the U.S. since 1944, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America is now believed to still exist in the U.S. This huge bird (19-21 inches long) makes 14-36 inch cavities, 30-50 feet high in living cypress trees, for nesting and roosting. The bird’s primary source of food is wood-boring insects, which it digs out of trees with its stout, chisel-shaped bill along river bottoms. A tuft of feathers over the nostrils prevents chips from entering their nose, and a long extendable tongue extracts the insects from their burrows.

Dr. Henry Bryant, ornithologist, of Boston reported in 1859 that the Ivory-billed woodpecker was abundant near Enterprise, FL. The last one seen in Florida was probably in February 1924 in the Upper St. Johns River Basin at Lake Poinsett by D. J. Nicholson. Their early demise in Florida was probably due to the cutting of the giant cypress trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Previously, Native Americans hunted the ivory-billed for its beautiful feathers, which were used for their headdresses. Later, its skin was used for the shot pouches of squatters and hunters. In addition to the attraction of its ivory bill, hunters found them very tasty as “the crackers consider them better than ducks!” Hopefully, their call, which sounds like the “burry reed notes of a Scotch bagpipe,” will now be able to be heard again.

Dr. Bryant’s report also noted that Roseate spoonbill’s breeding in great numbers at Pelican Island- so numerous that a hunter was reported to have killed 60 in a day. This year for the first time in many decades, the Roseate spoonbill appears to be again breeding at our Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. Both these reports are all very good news.

The bad news is the planned improvement proposed by the Indian River County’s Department of Public Works. They are planning to install a large boat ramp on Oslo Road east of U.S. 1, adjacent to the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area and the University of Florida’s Medical Entomology Laboratory, both of which will be affected by the so-called “improvements.” Besides the new 45-foot concrete boat ramp, there are four planned docks that will project out 40, 45, 120, and 124 feet into the seagrasses of the Indian River Lagoon and two 100-foot turn arounds into the mangroves. Currently there is a dirt road down to a small ramp for very small boats such as skiffs with very small motors, as the area is so shallow that it cannot be used for large powerboats. In fact, the area is so shallow that during certain times, especially spring tides, even canoes have a difficult time getting out into the Indian River Lagoon.

There is a sandy beach, which is used by canoeists and kayakers with no launching problems. The area contains some of the best seagrass beds the Indian River Lagoon. Most notable is the wide bladed turtle-grass (Thalassia testudinum), which forms dense beds particularly near the ramp site and serves as important habitat and a food source for fish, birds, and other wildlife in the Lagoon. Large boats would tear up and destroy these grass beds with the props of their large motors and harm our national estuary and the economy it generates.

It gets worse. In addition, according to the Indian River County plans, these improvements of widening and paving the road and providing parking for large rigs will require the loss of over 2 acres of pristine mangroves mostly black mangroves (Avicennia germinans). During the two hurricanes, these extensive mangroves provided essential protection to the University of Florida’s buildings including the Boathouse and other buildings along and near U.S. 1 and Oslo Rd. and should not be eliminated. Moreover, these mangroves provide shelter and the primary food source for the fish, birds, and wildlife in the area. Thus this plan will destroy the primary food chain and habitat by killing both seagrasses and mangroves in an area where the county and state spent millions of dollars to preserve, i.e. the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area.

Powerboats do and should have access to the Indian River Lagoon. In fact there are already excellent facilities for launching large boats and providing large rig parking near Memorial Island in Vero Beach or the north jetty in St. Lucie County, both within 10-15 minutes of Oslo Rd and available to south county large boat owners in either direction. Perhaps these need to be expanded to accommodate more boats.

Thus why burden Indian River taxpayers with a bad idea that is so destructive to these few remaining pristine areas and would not provide the boaters with adequate depth unless dredged, which would be even more destructive to the seagrasses.

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