This favorite island of endangered birds is sometimes here – and sometimes not
Pelican Shoal, off the Lower Keys, was never an island – about an acre of coral debris and sand. But it has special significance in Florida for an endangered species of bird.
Mimi Stafford has frequented the area since the 1960s.
“I’ve seen it come and go over the decades. There are years when it’s a pretty big island and there are years when it’s flooded,” she said.
In 1990, 300 pairs of Roseate Terns were nesting on the island. It was the primary nesting site in Florida for seabirds, listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The state has called Pelican Shoal a critical wildlife preserve and has banned people from visiting the island. If people get close, they can scare birds away from their nests and the eggs will fail.
When the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary emerged in the mid-1990s, Pelican Shoal was designated as a Wildlife Management Area.
But then the 2005 hurricane season arrived.
“It was just a really bad year, especially in the Keys,” said Ricardo Zambrano, regional biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “We had four hurricanes and a tropical storm that year, just back to back.”
First Hurricane Dennis, then Rita, dramatically reduced the size of the island.
“Then of course the final blow was Wilma,” Zambrano said. “It was just wiped off the wipe.”
Twelve years later, Hurricane Irma passed through the Lower Keys and Pelican Shoal reappeared. State wildlife managers continued to check the island and were awarded in 2019.
“The birds were back and the island had grown again. And not only grew, but the birds are nesting. We were very pleasantly surprised,” Zambrano said.
Zambrano says there were around 50 roseate tern nest pairs on Pelican Shoal that year. The following year, a storm hit the island again.
The island is still there, but “very narrow, very low, not suitable for nesting,” he said. “So the question is, what are we doing to protect the species, to keep it from going extinct in Florida?” “
The state considered reviving or restoring the island by adding dead coral, sand and rocks to it, but that would be difficult. It is near seagrass beds and coral reefs.
The state has tried to set up nesting platforms to mimic the flat, rocky habitat preferred by Roseate Terns, but it has not worked.
“We attracted fewer terns, but no roseate terns,” Zambrano said.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is updating its management plan, which may include changes to areas with special protection like Pelican Shoal. A draft version of the plan had removed these protections, since nesting had ended there. But Zambrano said the sanctuary might want to reconsider its decision, as 50 Roseate Terns nested on the island just two years ago.
And Pelican Shoal is not the only island to have left the landscape of the Keys. An island that locals dubbed “Wilma Key” appeared in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge after that storm and has since disappeared again.
Chris Bergh of The Nature Conservancy said protecting ephemeral islands that appear after storms can be a challenge, even when they provide excellent habitat for wildlife.
“They’re also a great habitat for people to go out, hang out and throw frisbees, drink beer, and run dogs,” he said.
A version of the new rules proposed by the sanctuary included provisions to expand emergency rules – which could apply to habitat that appears after storms. The restoration plan should be made public in the fall.
This year, only 39 pairs of Roseate Terns have nested in Florida, on the rooftops of three government buildings in Marathon and Key West. The building where they nestled in Key West, as part of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, is expected to be demolished within a few years.
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