Year of the Bird – What can be done?

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
September 2018

Just 100 years ago, Florida’s human population was about 900,000. Today it is estimated at 21 million.  Any wonder that our bird species are declining?  Since 1500, over 190 species of world’s birds have become extinct, and that rate is increasing. Approximately 1,469 of the world’s 10,966 bird species are considered to be under threat of extinction. National Audubon in 2014 predicted that the U.S. could see 314 species on the brink, and maybe gone forever, nearly half in the next 50 years.

Red-bellied Woodpecker | Photo: Bob Montanaro

2018 is Year of the Bird.  Pelican Island Audubon joined the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in a yearlong celebration of birds. Why now?  First, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) passed100 years ago, in 1918, to protect birds was one of Audubon’s earliest victories.  This law has saved billions of birds (, yet it is NOW in danger of being weakened by decree and federal legislation. Second, our birds today face many new, serious threats, as do we humans.  Birds are being decimated by loss or change of habitat, invasive predators, pollution from human waste and toxic chemicals, global warming, executive order and legislation.

What have we done for the birds (and humans) this past year?

Advocacy for the Birds

  • Led the fight to stop the deposit of biosolids (human sewage sludge) for 6 months on the Pressley Ranch that surrounds Blue Cypress Lake (BCL).  The Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has finally taken action. Admirably, the Ocean Research Conservation Association (ORCA) tested the water and found the blooms in BCL contain the microscopic, colonial blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) Microcystis aeruginosa and M. wesenbergii that can be highly toxic to humans. Barbara Buhr took photos and videos of the bloom for all to see.  Special thanks to Indian River County Vice Chair Commissioner Bob Solari and the Board for passing an ordinance banning biosolids dumping on the unincorporated county lands for six months, and to the Corrigan Ranch for stopping the dumping and encouraging other ranches to do so.  With Florida’s population growth at historic rates (predicted to double in the next 30-40 years), our state must find alternatives to dumping poop on lands around our state (FDEP reports over 140 permitted sites). Those nutrients are polluting estuaries, rivers and springs all over Florida.  We must find ways to manage this human poop to save the birds, our own health, and bring back our paradise! Hooray! Our Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council also has called for a biosolids ban!
  • Led the fight at the Oslo Road boat ramp to stop the county from removing seagrasses to dredge to the Indian River Lagoon Intra-coastal Waterway and to fill in mangroves for an enlarged parking lot. Many thanks to Paul Fifeita and Mark Yanno of the local Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), Drs. Grant Gilmore, Bill Loftus, and Edie Widder for their support in convincing the County Commission to vote 4-1 to stopped the project and save the fishes eaten by our birds, and on which the anglers depend.
  • Although water farming helps birds, we expressed concern to the St. Johns Water Management District for expending $22 M of precious funds to support temporary water-farming projects at the Fellsmere Joint Venture and Graves Brothers Ranches. Those locations may become sub-divisions after the 10-year projects, destroying more bird habitat.  Why not use that money to purchase conservation easements so farmers will either water farm after 10 years or continue to farm those lands?
  • Formed a coalition to “Plant 100,000 Trees in Indian River County” with the Environmental Learning Center, Indian River Land Trust, ORCA, Indian River County Health Department, and University of Florida/ Indian River County Extension Service.
  • Partnered with the CCA, Indian River Neighborhood Association to form a Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County that includes many organizations.
  • Requested the FDEP to have an independent evaluation of the County’s controversial Spoonbill Marsh Water-Treatment Facility to determine the effectiveness of dilution of salts from the county RO plant before discharging into the Indian River Lagoon. They declined.

Education for the Birds

  • Held a successful Conference “Transforming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future” in January for 362 participants; a second conference will be held on Feb 2, 2019.  Plan to attend!
  • Provided great monthly lectures both in Sebastian and Vero Beach, 30 expert guided field trips in partnership with the IRLT, our Peligram, and much much more.
  • Installed our 2000-volume Nature and Bird Library card catalog on our website thanks to Tina Marchese and Bob Montanaro.
  • Educated 104 fifth graders from four county schools in our Audubon Advocates after-school program at Audubon House on the importance of the environment to us and our wildlife.  Each student learned, in 13 2-½ hour classes, about storm and wastewater pollution, birds, and other ecological topics by kayaking in the Lagoon, visits to Sebastian Inlet, Egret Marsh, and the 8th Street Wastewater plant, by walking the county’s various scrub, hammock, and wetlands habitats, and more (programs supported jointly by the National Estuary Program, Indian River County Children’s Service Advisory Council, Indian River Community Foundation, and John’s Island Foundation).  
  • Provided children with environmental activities and knowledge in four one-week Audubon Advocate Summer Camps, and training for youth guides, supported in part by the Homeless Children’s Foundation.
  • Taught our Intensive Beginning Birding course to 33 adults by Dr. Juanita Baker and David Simpson.
  • Started new Friday morning workshops on how to be an Audubon Activist for our homes, conservation areas, and County Nature Stewardship Volunteers.

Public Awareness and Citizen Science continued for the Birds.

  • Osprey Nests at Blue Cypress Lake: Monitored and Geo-mapped 340 active nests,one of the largest nesting populations in the world by Dr. Bill Loftus, Donna Halleran, and Jim Shea, and Dr. Richard Baker,
  • Spoonbill Watch: Citizen-science volunteerstracked Roseate Spoonbills, led by Drs. David Cox and Bill Loftus. In addition, through our efforts this year, these two rookery islands at the Stick Marsh were declared a Critical Wildlife Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That designation will protect a safe place to nest for Spoonbills and the many other nesting bird species without disturbance.
  • Eagle Watch: monitored Bald Eagles nesting, led by Billi Wagner, with help from Bill Capie, Edward McCool, Samantha McGee and Christina Neaf.
  • Jay Watch: monitored Florida Scrub-Jays, led by Joe Carroll, assisted by Ellie VanOs, Larry Salustro, Julia Wiggins, Jane Schnee, and Rosalind James
  • Healthy Food Square-Foot Gardens in Indian River County Schools: led by Steve Thomas, Peter Sutherland, and Donna Halleran.
  • Quality of Life Indicator Projects in Gifford and Fellsmere: led by Dr. Graham Cox and volunteers.
  • Demonstration Butterfly and Landscape Gardens enhanced to attract birds and pollinators: led by Ken Gonyo and volunteers.

Plans to Save Birds and protect the places they need.  Join us in our efforts!
The Administration and Congress want to gut the MBTA’s vital protections for more than 1,000 native bird species. In December 2017, the Interior Department issued a legal opinion that the incidental take of birds by industry is not prohibited under the law and will not be enforced.  This position reverses decades of policy, stating that the law only applies to intentional activities such as hunting and poaching. Now all industrial activities will be exempt from the law, including oil waste pits and spills, power lines, tailings ponds, and more.  We vehemently disagree with this opinion; whoever causes harm should be held responsible and contribute towards fixing the problems. Estimate: over 200 million birds are killed every year by U.S. industry.

Were this policy in effect after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP would have been off the hook for one million bird deaths and its $100 million fine to restore bird habitat.  Those funds contributed to the environmental and wildlife clean ups on Florida’s Gulf coast. We assisted in releasing the first rehabilitated Brown Pelican and Northern Gannet at our Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, America’s first refuge.

It is more than birds and the MBTA that are under attack. Congress and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are advancing numerous proposals to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), America’s safety net for threatened wildlife, plants, and fishes.  The ESA passed in 1973 by 92-0 in the Senate, 394-4 in the House, and was signed by President Nixon. This important Act has had a 99% success rate in preventing extinctions. It has helped recover populations of Bald Eagles, humpback whales, and American alligators, among many others, and has been the safety net for our biotic heritage. America’s premier land conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), risks termination in September at the hands of Congress. Contact Secretary Zinke and your legislators to demand they not accept the new interpretation of the MBTA, weaken the ESA, or allow the LWCF to sunset.

Scientists say we only have 50 years to solve climate change. Waiting will not work! Over 99% of published and peer-reviewed journal articles, and our military experts agree that human–caused climate change is happening.  There is NO climate-change conspiracy except by those using denial and mis-information tactics to protect their profits, sow doubt and inaction! Follow the money to see who reaps the greatest benefit from climate denial.

Let’s use our advocacy, education, and public-awareness skills to protect our birds and ourselves into the future. Your membership dues, donations, grants, and volunteerism all support efforts to build a healthy and sustainable future for our community, our nation and our world!

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