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This Endangered Birds' Favored Island Is Sometimes Here — And Sometimes Not

an image of two roseate terns sitting on rocky terrain
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Roseate terns prefer barren, rocky terrain, where their chicks and eggs are camouflaged.

Pelican Shoal, off the Lower Keys, was never much of an island — about an acre of coral rubble and sand. But it has special importance in Florida to one endangered species of bird.

Mimi Stafford has been going out to the area since the 1960s.

"I have seen it come and go over the decades. There are years when it is quite a substantial island and there are years when it's awash," she said.

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By 1990, 300 pairs of roseate terns were nesting on the island. It was the primary nesting site in Florida for the seabirds, listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The state named Pelican Shoal a critical wildlife area and banned people from going to the island. If people come near, they can scare birds off their nests and the eggs will fail.

When the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary came along in the mid-1990s, Pelican Shoal was designated a Wildlife Management Area.

But then the hurricane season of 2005 came along.

"It was just a very bad year, especially in the Keys," said Ricardo Zambrano, regional biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We had four hurricanes and one tropical storm that year, just back-to-back."

First Hurricane Dennis, then Rita, drastically reduced the size of the island.

"Then, of course, the final blow was Wilma," Zambrano said. "It was just wiped off the map."

Twelve years later, Hurricane Irma crossed the Lower Keys — and Pelican Shoal reappeared. State wildlife managers kept checking the island and were rewarded in 2019.

"The birds were back and the island had grown again. And not only grown, but the birds were nesting. We were very pleasantly surprised," Zambrano said.

Zambrano says there were an estimated 50 pairs of roseate tern nests on Pelican Shoal that year. The next year, a storm washed over the island again.

The island is still there, but "very narrow, very low, not suitable for nesting," he said. "So the question is what do we do to protect the species, to keep it from extirpating in Florida?"

The state has considered renourishing or restoring the island by adding dead coral, sand and rocks, but that would be difficult. It's near seagrass beds and coral reefs.

The state has tried setting up nesting platforms to mimic the flat, rocky habitat that roseate terns prefer, but it hasn't worked.

"We've attracted least terns, but not roseate terns," Zambrano said.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is in the midst of updating its management plan, which may include changes to areas with special protection like Pelican Shoal. One draft version of the plan had removed those protections, since nesting had ended there. But Zambrano said the sanctuary might want to reconsider, since 50 roseate terns nested on the island as recently as two years ago.

And Pelican Shoal isn't the only island that has come and gone from the Keys landscape. 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 from The Nature Conservancy said protecting ephemeral islands that appear after storms can be a challenge, even when they're great habitat for wildlife.

"They're also great habitat for people to go out and hang out and throw frisbees and drink beers and run dogs," he said.

One version of the sanctuary's proposed new rules included provisions for extending emergency rules — which could apply to habitat that appears after storms. The restoration blueprint is scheduled for release to the public some time in the fall.

This year, only 39 pairs of roseate terns nested in Florida — on three government building rooftops in Marathon and Key West. The building where they nested in Key West, at the Joint Interagency Task Force South, is scheduled for demolition within a few years.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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