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St. Pete Beach family donates island to Audubon

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:05 AM
ST. PETE BEACH -

The small mangrove-covered island in Little MacPherson Bayou, just south of the Loews Don Cesar, was never a place for picnics or camping for the Miller kids, whose family owned it for 41 years — along with the nearby property where the family ran The Rellim Hotel.

The birds have always been there, though. And so the Miller family recently gave the island over to them, donating the property to Audubon of Florida to ensure it remains a safe nesting ground.

When the art deco-style hotel was sold after closing in 1981, Howard Miller, a lawyer in St. Petersburg, assumed the island had gone with it. That is, until he was sorting through his father's papers in 2010 and came across a tax bill.

In fact, the island didn't sell with the property, which was on both sides of Gulf Boulevard. Miller learned the land was still in the name of his grandparents, Jacob and Harriett Miller, who opened The Rellim in 1940.

Fuller Island, as it was called on the tax bill, still belonged to Miller, sister Jan Sher, brother Jay Miller, mother Sonya Miller and seven cousins.

While family members talked by email about what to do with the land, Sonya Miller got a call from Ann Paul, the regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida, asking if the bird society could manage the island.

"It was kismet, really," Howard Miller said. "I broached the possibility of donating it. Everyone was in favor. It was all done by email, and it was quick."

By November, the deal was done.

The island was the first land donation Audubon of Florida had received in 20 years, Paul said.

The two- to three-acre island is now known as the Miller Family Bird Colony Sanctuary. Recently, it was occupied by 19 pairs of nesting great blue herons, surrounded by a number of brown pelicans and cormorants that roost there regularly.

Since 2003, Audubon volunteers have been surveying the island. Over the course of a year, it typically provides a roosting or nesting spot for, among others, reddish egrets, double-crested cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills.

During Audubon's Christmas Bird Count last month, volunteers counted on the island eight adult pelicans and a juvenile, 21 great blue herons, a night crown heron, a great egret and an anhinga.

More than 200 pairs of birds nested on the island last year.

"It's a really special bird colony," Paul said.

And because the island sits on a dead end of Boca Ciega Bay, and boaters tend to travel slowly through the area, it's about as protected as it can be in a highly urbanized area, she said.

The island is now one of 25 on the Gulf Coast under Audubon's care. The first was donated in 1939 — Terra Ceia Bird Key, off the coast of Manatee County.

When the Millers purchased the land for The Rellim in 1940, they never tried to change it. It was always part of the scenery tourists came to see.

The full-service hotel, which straddled Gulf Boulevard, was first run by Jacob and Harriet Miller, then Howard Miller's parents, Sonya and Irwin, and one of Irwin's sisters.

The two-story hotel had a full dining room that served guests three meals a day. On the beach side sat eight little cottages with two rental rooms in each, a clubhouse, a pool and a coffee shop, Howard Miller recalled.

"People would come down from the Northeast and the Midwest for a week, a month or the entire season from November to April," he said.

In summer, when only the villas were open for guests, Miller and his siblings would fish off the hotel's dock in the bay or row over to the island to while away their summer days.

"It still looks now like it did back then," he said.

The Rellim — that's Miller spelled backward — closed its doors in 1981 as a faster-paced clientele embraced hotels with do-it-yourself breakfast bars and stripped-down services.

Miller's parents and aunts sold the land with mixed emotions, said Howard Miller, who still lives on St. Pete Beach. Condominiums replaced the hotel.

Over the years, the family has spread out. While several still live on or near St. Pete Beach, many now live in other states.

But one thing hasn't changed — the annual Miller family reunions that started when relatives came to stay at The Rellim. The crowd has grown from Irwin and his three sisters and their children to between 50 and 70 people who gather each year during the week between Christmas and New Year's.

The tradition of birds nesting on what once was the Miller family's island will continue, too, said Howard Miller. He made a presentation during the most recent reunion showing off the plaque presented by Audubon as a thank-you for the land donation.


yhammett@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7127

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