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Thanks to girl, Shell Key's birds safer

The 9-year-old Audubon Society member helped push the plan to protect the preserve's feathered denizens.

By NICK JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007

Miles Flower, 7, left, and his sister Nora Jade Flower, 9, explore a creek Friday on Shell Key. At right is their mother, Hilary Flower, who homeschools her children. They travel to Shell Key about twice a month to explore, learn, help maintain the bird preserve and pick up trash.
[Lara Cerri | Times]

At 9 years old Nora Jade Flower is already a member of the Audubon Society of Florida with an affinity for spotting rare shorebirds.

She frequently volunteers for bird counts and conservation efforts with people four times her age.

Recently Nora was able to lend a fresh young face to a cause championed by the Audubon Society.

She spoke before the Pinellas County Commission on behalf of one of her favorite places for bird watching, the Shell Key Preserve.

"It's a good shelling place and it's a preserve, so lots of birds come," Nora Jade said.

She was advocating the 2007 Shell Key Preserve Management Plan, which was adopted by the county in October and finalized by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this month.

The new management plan made it illegal to bring dogs or alcohol into the preserve.

"There were lots of beer bottles everywhere and even if the dogs were on a leash and not paying attention to the birds, they would still fly away," Nora Jade said.

The decision was disputed by the area's recreational boaters, who claimed the preserve was the last place to enjoy nature with beer in hand. But the county staff and environmentalists won out, arguing that recreational use of the preserve should be focused on education and families.

For some, the preserve is practically a family member.

"We are so related to Shell Key," said Nora Jade's mother, Hilary Flower.

Flower homeschools Nora Jade and her younger brothers Miles, 7, and Ramsay, 2. Part of their education has been regular trips to the preserve.

It was during those trips that Nora Jade began to display an intense interest in nature. At 5 years old she would spend hours along the shoreline collecting and observing the mollusks and other creatures that inhabit the shallows.

"That's when we realized she was very serious about it. She wasn't just having fun at the beach. There was something going on with this kid," Hilary Flower said.

"She's a very exceptional little girl," Capt. Alva Sholty said.

He has been running the ferry that brings volunteers to Shell Key since 1990 - 10 years before it was made a preserve by the county.

Sholty said the new management plan that Nora Jade helped champion will allow families like hers to enjoy the place for years to come.

"The preserve is going to be more family friendly and the birds are going to have a little bit more peace," Sholty said.

The county plans to be enforcing the new rules by spring. That's when nesting season begins for the shorebirds that lay their eggs along the beaches of the barrier island.

During the nesting season Nora Jade and the other volunteers will help protect, count and identify these birds.

"Some of them are very hard to identify and the average person would say, 'Holy cow, they all look the same to me,' but Nora Jade can pick them out with her binoculars," said John Ogden, the director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and a professor of biology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Ogden volunteers alongside Nora Jade and said she displays a sensitivity to nature beyond that of most students at the university level.

That's not hard to imagine. Nora Jade began Christmas Eve with a 7 a.m. trip to another favorite spot, the flats alongside the Sunshine Skyway. With her brothers, mom and grandparents in tow, she collected conchs, sea stars and sand dollars.

"I really feel like the more you get the kids out into nature, the more hope there will be for the next generation having a real interest in these places," Hilary Flower said.

Nora Jade said her plans for the future include becoming a naturalist specializing in sea life.

Animals collected during her early morning trip were all gently returned to the grassy shallows of Tampa Bay.

Nick Johnson can be reached at or 893-8361.

[Last modified December 25, 2007, 20:35:58]

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