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    Under their wing

    Members of the Clearwater Audubon Society help ensure a speck of land in the gulf is a safe spot to land.

    [Times photos: Scott Keeler]
    Shorebirds, including knots and sanderlings, take flight Friday from Three Rooker Island.

    By JULIE CHURCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


    THREE ROOKER ISLAND -- Boaters call this sandy island between Honeymoon Island and Anclote Key in the Gulf of Mexico a little slice of paradise.

    Crystal-clear waters and an unspoiled beach make the area popular with beachgoers and nature lovers. As many as 300 boats have been seen at the island on a holiday weekend, according to park rangers.

    Those same qualities, and the fact that there are no raccoons or other wildlife predators, also make Three Rooker Island one of Florida's five largest bird-nesting areas. More than 250 species have been observed on the island, a popular resting spot for birds migrating North.

    While boaters are allowed on the island, dogs are not, and park staff members have roped off nesting areas. When dogs come snout-to-beak with the birds, it interferes with the birds' nesting habits, and chicks are unable to hatch.

    It is this struggle that keeps state park rangers at the Gulf Islands Geo Park, which includes state parks and islands from Egmont Key in Manatee County to Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park in Pasco County, feeling short-staffed.

    "There's just not enough of us to go around," said Shawn Yeager, one of 12 park rangers patrolling the area. "But we make do with what we have."

    Beginning this year, volunteers from the Clearwater Audubon Society are helping to make the rangers' job a little easier.

    Every Friday during nesting season, from March to September, 10 to 20 volunteers make the 20-minute boat trip out to the island. There, they help rangers and biologists post signs designating nesting areas, pick up trash that could hurt birds and do a weekly census of the birds on the island.

    "We are extremely happy to have the group here," said Yeager, the park ranger who oversees the volunteers. "They are ready to hit the ground running, they are energetic and they help out a great deal."

    Volunteer Patty Foreman, from left, records bird totals while Dana Kerstein and Sally Braem look for birds at Three Rooker Island on Friday.

    During their census Friday, bird counters observed hundreds of laughing gulls, birds commonly seen stealing food from beachgoers; a few snowy plovers, which are a threatened species in Florida; and a white morphed reddish egret, a rare sight on the island.

    The milelong island is about 3 miles west of Crystal Beach and was once known as Three Rooker Bar, because it started as little more than a sandbar. Unlike spoil islands along the coast, it has never been built up using dredged material and has vegetation consisting mostly of shrubs. As a sandbar, its exact location, size and shape are constantly changing.

    While they were there Friday, volunteers also helped to install a large sign educating people about the birds on the island and their nesting habits.

    During last week's trip, they finished posting more than 100 small signs warning people to keep themselves and their pets out of the nesting areas.

    "It's the dogs that are the problem," said Dana Kerstein, president of the 800-member Clearwater Audubon Society. "They scare the birds from their nests, and if they are away from the eggs for just 20 minutes, the chicks are dead."

    The job is not all work and no play. Volunteers spend much of their time on the island doing what they love -- bird-watching.

    "We are so lucky in Florida to have so many bird species," said volunteer Tom Pickard of Dunedin. "We have a huge variety of both inland and shorebirds."

    Pickard said that the volunteer project, which they call Project Colony Watch, was suggested to the Clearwater group at a state Audubon Society meeting last fall. When he and Kerstein approached the Geo Park staff with the idea, they were more than willing to work with the volunteers.

    Yeager said that Caladesi and Honeymoon islands have a 60-member Citizens Support Group, but there has not yet been a group established for Three Rooker Island.

    This is where the Audubon Society steps in. The group is adopting the island and will begin helping the park with fundraising and other activities in addition to the work it is currently doing.

    Yeager said there are always openings for more volunteers. He is hosting a meeting at 7 p.m. May 7 at Honeymoon Island, 1 Causeway Blvd. in Dunedin. There he will explain the volunteer program and register those interested in joining. If Kerstein's impressions of the project are any indication, Yeager should have no problem recruiting volunteers.

    "I hate to leave that place," she said on returning to the boat docks last Friday. "As we were going away, I thought, "I can't wait till next week.' "

    - Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229.

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