Snowy egrets fly through the pink sky as the sun sets. They land on one of two small islands in the middle of a 7.3-acre lake at The Oaks Club. Their white plumage contrasts with the green leaves of the non-native Brazilian pepper trees.
The eastern and western islands on the lake within The Oaks are home to more than 1,600 birds, which makes the islands the largest rookery in Sarasota County. The islands create an ideal habitat because they are surrounded by water, which makes it almost impossible for predators to access the islands.
These islands have also become a dividing line between Oaks residents. Some residents love the birds, while others complain about the stench and the potential health hazard the proximity of the rookery may cause. For two years, The Oaks Club has been debating with community members about whether to cut down the invasive pepper trees.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued the Board of Governors of The Oaks Club a migratory bird-nest removal permit Jan. 14, to begin the removal of the trees on the eastern island. It also sent a letter suggesting the club remove the trees in phases.
Various bird-advocate groups, such as Save Our Seabirds, the Sierra Club, and The Audubon Societies of Sarasota, Venice and Florida, sent a letter to the board of governors suggesting it remove 30% of the trees at a time. This would give the birds an opportunity to live elsewhere while new native plants and trees are planted.
“This will be entirely up to them, we are just asking them to have some goodwill about it,” said Audubon Society of Florida President Ann Paul.
The Oaks Club chose to cut down 90% of the trees on the eastern island all at once, because of the way pepper trees spread so rapidly. The western island will remain untouched, for now.
“We don’t believe removing 30% of the trees at a time is a solution because Brazilian peppers are very aggressive,” said Board of Governors President Carl Koch. “We can only do remediation once a year because of the nesting birds, and, then, we would not be able to do significant planting of native Florida plants.”
Monday, Jan. 21 ECo Consultants Inc., an environmental consulting firm, began to cut down the pepper trees on the eastern island. The Oaks was only able to begin removal after ensuring there were no active nests in the trees, which means they contain no eggs or baby birds. It is illegal to remove nests that may have eggs or fledglings.
It will take The Oaks Club two weeks to complete the project.
Don Adkins, of ECo Consultants Inc., volunteer residents and the Audubon Society have been monitoring bird activity at The Oaks for two years.
The islands are home to a large variety of birds, including four species of special concern (see sidebar) that have a small or declining population in the state.
Beverly Meadows moved to her current home, which sits right next to the islands, so she could enjoy the birds.
“The Oaks prides themselves in the wildlife they have, yet, they choose to get rid of these birds,” Meadows said. “When the trees are removed, the birds will disperse and those who love them lose them and won’t have them as part of their lives.”
Meadows said she tried contacting the board of governors and that no one responded to her phone calls or emails. She started an email campaign, and she and other neighbors protested the removal of the nests. The group picketed outside of The Oaks Club on U.S. 41.
Dr. Jürgen Ladendorf and his wife, Cecily Shar-Whitehill, also enjoy the birds. They both said they were horrified when they heard the rookery was going to be altered. They are skeptical the new native plants will support a bird population.
“If (the eastern island) is destroyed, the board expects the birds to go to the larger western island,” Ladendorf said, “which will than get overpopulated, and, then, they (The Oaks) will go after the second island.”
The Oaks Club plans to see how the removal of the trees on the eastern island goes before reapplying for a permit to remove the pepper trees on the western island.
“Our long-term objective is to do that, but we want to know how the first island goes, that way we have information if we want to do anymore adjustments,” said Koch. “We would want to eliminate the pepper trees and have two natural islands, with native Florida plants to support a nesting bird population.”
Not all neighbors feel the same way about having the largest bird rookery in Sarasota County sitting 20 yards from their back doors. Page Halpin, who lives next to the lake, had to resurface her deck because of the birds.
“We went to Vermont for the summer for two weeks,” said Halpin. “When we came back, our pool cage looked like a bomb had gone off. The birds came and took refuge over here; there was poop everywhere. I had to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars having the pool cage pressure cleaned and spend about $4,000 on a new deck.”
Bill Troutman, a nearby neighbor, worries about his health and the health of his grandchildren.
“It’s not just the feces, (bird disease) also comes from the dandruff of the feathers,” Troutman said. “They are flying, and that becomes airborne, and these diseases, they can affect anything, but the most common is the lungs because we breathe in that air.”
Troutman is awaiting a double-lung transplant and uses a regulator tank to help him breathe. He says the smell coming from the rookery prevents him from sitting outside and enjoying his patio.
“The folks at Tampa General told me that pets are an issue once I have the transplant; they said you have to stay away from them and don’t have birds,” Troutman said. “And if you do have a bird, don’t get anywhere near the bird cage. Well, I live in a bird cage.”
Both Halpin and Troutman say they have had pepper trees sprout up on their lawn from seeds that the wind carried over from the islands. They also said the bird population has increased in the last three years because The Oaks has not maintained the rapid growth of the pepper trees.
“We don’t want all the birds to be gone, we just want the population to be reduced,” Halpin said.
Once the rookery is cut down, the birds are expected to make new homes in new locations.
“Those birds are using that island as a safe habitat, which there aren’t many around the county,” said Florida Costal Islands Sanctuary Manager Mark Rachal. “The birds will search for a new location, which means they may leave the county all together.”
Species of Special Concern
Birds that have a small or declining population
Snowy egrets were once hunted for their plumage. Ladies used the feathers for their hats, and by the beginning of the 20th century, an ounce of snowy egret feather was worth more than an ounce of gold. To this day, the birds are still repopulating after being hunted to near extinction. In 1918, the U.S. passed the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects them to this day.
Little Blue Heron
The little blue heron is a species of special concern because of its dependence on the wetlands. The population declined from 20,000 in 1976 to 1978 down to 17,000 by 1989. Their threats are not understood but may include coastal development; environmental issues; degrading of feeding habitat; disturbance at foraging and breeding sites; and exposure to pesticides and toxins.
The tri-colored heron, formerly known as the Louisiana heron, has declined due to habitat loss.
The white ibis has declined due to loss and degradation of wetlands and human development in coastal areas and freshwater foraging areas. Surveys show that the white ibis has declined by half from mid-1970s levels, including an 80% drop in south Florida.