I’ve been lucky enough to visit beautiful Sanibel Island on the Florida Gulf Coast for the last seven or eight years. It’s a glorious place, with more than five thousand acres devoted to conservation under the auspices of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge: there are no street lights anywhere on the island, for example, in consideration of the nesting sea turtles. Sanibel is a sheller’s paradise, and people come from around the world to visit its extraordinary variety of shore- and seabirds. On a sunset tour offered by the Refuge, a guide reminded us that “it’s great to see these guys (the birds) doing so well, but we need to remember that they’re refugees. All of southern Florida used to be like this.” I was touched by what he said, but still happy to see enormous flocks of seabirds roosting in the trees and smugly satisfied to be successfully supporting habitat for so many beautiful creatures.
The birds in the Refuge are gorgeous and exotic – night herons, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, osprey, and many many more – but the birds on the beach have always been just as extraordinary for their variety and number. Since I’ve been visiting, there have always been hordes of brown pelicans, gulls, terns, black skimmers, and the tiny, skittering, nameless (to me) brown birds known as “peeps.” Gathering wherever there were rich supplies of fish and live shells, birds took up a lot of room on the beach. We walked around carefully in order not to disturb them, and frowned disapprovingly at parents who let their children run and shout at the flocks. Once I saw a heron stalking a fisherman who kept moving away uncomfortably as if he were being pestered by a drunk at a party. The bird just followed the fisherman wherever he went, hoping and intending to share his catch – sort of a man bites dog story, in reverse.
Last year I noticed fewer royal terns than usual, and I didn’t see any black skimmers until well into February. The skimmers have gone missing again so far this year, but what’s really noticeable is that there are no large flocks of anything, not even the nameless “peeps.” I talked to one of the knowledgeable volunteers at Ding Darling, hoping he would tell me the change was due to some kind of accident or fluke, some odd migration pattern. He did not. He told me the decline in numbers was real and due to loss of habitat, partly from the disastrous overflow into the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee, and partly from uncontrolled development all around the Gulf. Birds cannot thrive without the sea grasses that shelter the smallest creatures in the food chain; toxic waste, agricultural overflow, and too many dishwashers destroy habitat as surely, if more slowly, than a catastrophe like the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Miami, we’re told, will be under water in 2025 – but on February 3rd, a Florida congressman, Matt Gaetz (R), proposed the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency. Gaetz represents Florida’s First District, including the entire Gulf Coast region of the Florida Panhandle.