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A peek at many beaks

Each new sighting is a feather in the birder's cap and a check on the master list of elusive winged creatures.

Published October 11, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Today, the biggest problem for the birds of the Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge Islands is the raccoons.

But 120 years ago, it was man.

Florida was one of the primary sources of plumes for ladies' hats in the late 19th century - particularly from the egret, whose feathers went for $32 an ounce.

The devastation of bird colonies around the country led to the creation of the national wildlife refuge system, which now covers 95-million acres in the United States. Eventually, after plume hunters murdered several game wardens, including one in South Florida, the federal government made it illegal to sell bird parts and put the plume hunters out of business.

That history was just part of the experience Friday for a boatload of bird lovers from the sixth annual Florida Birding & Nature Festival at Eckerd College. They passed by the islands in a ferry and trained their binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird they haven't seen.

The festival drew some 500 people from around the state and country to talk for four days about everything from saving whooping cranes to listening to frogs. Some of them are fans of bats, others are into butterflies.

But most are birders. Friday's field trip to the 403-acre Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge Islands brought together a wildlife photographer from West Newberry, Mass., intent on taking pictures of birds; a birding enthusiast from Gulfport who rarely gets out to do birding because she cares for her elderly parents; and an ophthalmologist and a gynecologist from St. Petersburg who just got back from birding and kayaking with killer whales in Canada.

And then there was Loretta Denton, 56, of Largo. She has fed a great heron named Oscar behind her home for the past three years.

"I'm a back-yard birder," she said.

Rich Paul, sanctuary manager for the Audubon Society and a tour leader, said most of the birds hunted in the 1800s had recovered by the 1930s except reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills. Once plentiful, these birds are now rare, with about 85 pairs of reddish egrets and some 300 pairs of roseate spoonbills from Tarpon Springs to Sarasota today.

Someone at the front of the ferry spotted one of the roseate spoonbills, a large bird with pink wings and red legs, on Little Bird Key. But few could see it between the thick mangroves that cover the spit of land shaped like a fish hook.

Lois Paradise, a member of the Tampa Audubon Society and a retired University of South Florida professor of medical microbiology, didn't see it and didn't mark it off on the checklist that many folks on the ferry carried. She did check off a double-breasted cormorant, anhinga, magnificent frigatebird, yellow-crowned night heron, laughing gull, osprey, fish crow and sandwich tern.

"There are birders who really want to make long lists of birds they've seen, to see as many as possible," Paradise said. "Others are interested in seeing the birds naturally and noting their behavior."

Normally, the group could have expected to see thousands of birds on Tarpon Key, a mangrove island about a mile west of the northern approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge that once held the largest brown pelican rookery in Florida.

But swimming raccoons have taken over. Despite efforts to trap them, Tarpon Key, once home to some 3,000 pairs of birds, is largely deserted. Indian Key, another large island just south of Eckerd College, is overrun by raccoons and lost to birds.

The refuge system is about to hire a manager to focus on the raccoon problem, said National Wildlife Refuge manager Jim Kraus, a tour leader.

So now, hundreds of birds have taken up residence on Little Bird Island, a small island not far from the stucco mansions of Tierra Verde.

"We think of this as an overflow island, when Tarpon Key is in trouble," Paul said. "Birds live in dense, large colonies, so they are a smorgasbord for predators. No island is safe."

[Last modified October 11, 2003, 02:08:56]

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