Locals and tourists aren’t the only ones who flock to Pinellas County’s beaches around Memorial Day weekend. It’s nesting season for birds and sea turtles and a small group of volunteers spring into action to keep the animals and their eggs safe from holiday revelers.
Every morning at sunrise, Bruno Falkenstein searches the shores of St. Pete Beach and Shell Key for turtle nests. He moves the eggs if they’re in a dangerous location and ropes off nesting areas to protect them from rowdy beach goers. At Indian Shores beach, Kevin Christman, an anchor bird steward from the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, watches over a colony of 629 black skimmers, one of the state’s largest, for about 7 hours a day every weekend. There are about 23 bird steward sites throughout the state, Christman said. The stewards educate beach goers about the importance of birds and survey the bird populations.
The skimmers will soon be deemed a threatened species, as their numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss, and they are not alone. Pinellas is the most populated county per square mile in the state, and there isn’t much green space left. Least terns used to nest on the beach with the skimmers, Christman said, but now they’ve resorted to nesting on rooftops to stay away from people.
“What we’re doing is putting a Band Aid on something that needs stitches,” Christman said. “In the long-term, these guys can’t compete with the condos and pavement. Everything here is connected, and these animals are vital to our survival. Protect them for selfish reasons, even, so you’re kids can enjoy watching the birds or you can call yourself a conservationist.”
The birds lay their eggs on top of the sand, and rowdy beach goers, loose dogs or careless boaters can easily destroy a colony. Many know they shouldn’t litter around the animals, feed them or let children play around the eggs, but there are other activities that endanger the populations. Setting off holiday fireworks or flying a kite too close to a colony can be viewed as a threat. Running through flocks of birds will tire and overheat them, which could make them unable to fly north after Labor Day.
The only help the animals need from humans is to be left alone, Christman said.
The birds are protected by Florida law, but protecting them is a mission that will never be completed. The bird stewards have no authority to stop anyone from disturbing the animals.
“Holiday weekends with the drunks and the boats can be tough, because they go to different islands with the attitude that this is their beach,” Christman said. “I have people come up to me and complain that they take up a lot of space, but where else are they supposed to nest?”
Veronica Bazarte has owned a condo at the beach for 10 years, and said many locals understand that the birds owned the beaches first. However, there will always be a battle over the territory.
“People get annoyed by them, but I’m pro bird,” Bazarte said. “I think most of the people that live here really appreciate the birds and try to protect them.”
Though the birds protect their nests, turtles eggs are left alone, so they have a very high fatality rate, Falkenstein said. This year the turtle population is also in a downward cycle, Falkenstein said. Last year there were 37 turtle nests on St. Pete beach and 17 on Shell Key. This year, in all of Pinellas County there are only about 10 nests. There are no nests on St. Pete beach and only one on Shell Key, he said. It’s not unusual, but it makes it more important to protect them.
Falkenstein, who owns The Hurricane restaurant at Pass-a-Grille, has watched the turtles with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission since 1978, when he spotted a dead one on the beach. Falkenstein couldn’t get the state to move or protect the dead turtle’s nest, so he called local news agencies and forced action.
“I was a little stinker about it and played everyone against each other to get people out,” Falkenstein said. “It got me interested, and the rest is history.”
Wildlife helps Florida’s economy, Falkenstein said. Birding alone supports about 3 million jobs in the U.S. and brings about $5.2 billion to Florida, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – more money than the citrus industry.
It’s the biggest draw for tourists like Beryl Cost and her son Andrew from Beaufort, North Carolina, who travel to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary at Indian Shores every year to watch birds, manatees and other wildlife they can’t find back home. It’s becoming harder to find animals along the beaches, Beryl Cost said, and protecting them doesn’t take too much effort.
Or, if things get really desperate, follow 9-year-old Andrew’s advice:
“Hunt their predators.”