Pelican Island: The First U.S. Wildlife Refuge

Photo original source unknown and obtained at
Photo original source unknown 

By Maymie Higgins

Bird feathers are incredible.  They help control body temperature, provide power for flying and come in a wide array of vibrant colors.  Some feathers are so beautiful that they were sought out in massive quantities for the adornment of clothing and hats in the late 1800s.  Some hats even included entire stuffed birds, a macabre display that seems ridiculous in modern times.  And yet, by 1900, more than five million birds were being killed each year to meet the demand for plumes.  Nearly ninety-five percent of Florida’s shore birds were being destroyed by hunters.

Campaigns by the Audubon Society failed to appeal to women to stop seeking plumed items.  The Audubon Society was no match for their more powerful adversaries in the millinery industry who fought against all proposed laws to protect birds.  But in 1900, John F. Lacey succeeded in getting the Lacey Bird and Game Act passed, which made it a federal crime to transport birds killed in violation of any state law.  Government agents soon began confiscating huge shipments of bird skins and feathers.

Old attitudes and beliefs die hard.  Five years after the Lacey Act was passed, a game warden was murdered in the Florida Everglades by poachers. Three years later, another game warden was shot. But there were champions of the wild that remained undeterred.

In 1881, a German immigrant by the name of Paul Kroegel had homesteaded with his father on the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon, Florida.  There, he could look out to a five-acre mangrove island and watch thousands of brown pelicans and other water birds.  He grew to love Pelican Island so well that he made it his job to protect it by standing guard with his gun.

Warden Paul Kroegel. Credit: George Nelson/USFWS

Kroegel was visited by many naturalists from the 1880s to the early 1900s including well-known ornithologist, Frank Chapman.  Chapman was the curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a member of the American Ornithologist’s Union. Because Pelican Island was the last rookery from brown pelicans on the East Coast of Florida, he pledged to protect the birds.

In 1901, the American Ornithologist’s Union and the Florida Audubon Society championed successful legislation in Florida for the protection of non-game birds. Kroegel was one of four wardens hired by the Florida Audubon Society to protect water birds from market hunters.  It was two of those wardens that were murdered in the line of duty.

Chapman and his fellow bird protection advocate, William Dutcher, were acquainted with President Theodore Roosevelt, who had become President in 1901. They visited Roosevelt at his home in Sagamore Hill, New York and informed him of the situation at Pelican Island.  On March 14, 1903, without fanfare, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation and thereby creating the first refuge set aside by the federal government for the sake of wildlife.

Theodore Roosevelt at Pelican Island.  Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Paul Kroegel was hired as the first national wildlife refuge manager.  He was paid one dollar each month by the Florida Audubon Society because Congress had not set aside funds for the refuge.  Kroegel stood watch over Pelican Island until he was retired from federal service in 1926.

In the 1960s, local citizens again protected Pelican Island from attempts to sell surrounding wetlands and islands to developers. The Indian River Area Preservation League, comprised of local citrus growers, commercial fishermen, and sportsmen, came together with the Florida Audubon Society to successfully appeal to the State of Florida to include 422 acres of mangrove islands as part of the refuge.

In 1963, Pelican Island was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior because of its status as the first refuge set aside specifically to protect wildlife.

In 1968, the State of Florida agreed to expand the lease with the refuge to include 4,760 acres of mangrove islands and submerged lands.

In 1970, Pelican Island became the smallest wilderness area (six acres) in the National Wilderness Preservation System and has since acquired an additional 500 acres along its eastern boundary to provide a buffer against encroaching development, and links to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

The ecosystems of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge support hundreds of species of birds, fish, plants, and mammals. This includes numerous federally listed threatened and endangered species such as the West Indian Manatee, roseate tern, piping plover, wood stork, green sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and hawksbill sea turtle, the loggerhead sea turtle, Atlantic salt march snake, eastern indigo snake, southern bald eagle, and Arctic peregrine falcon. Other common wildlife includes the raccoon, bobcat, osprey, ground doves, river otter, opossum, and many species of songbirds. Due to its location along the Atlantic flyway, the refuge has the most diverse bird population in North America.

Isn’t it amazing how everything is connected?  The efforts of a handful of determined people to protect birds from a frivolous, yet ravenous fashion trend, more than one hundred years ago, resulted in a legacy that continues to protect thousands of plants and animals.

Here is a fantastic video by Untamed Science about Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge.

Birding for All


By Christine Harris

Innovative birding programs across the country are bringing this popular pastime to many unlikely candidates.  The stereotypical image of a “birder” to many would be a man who wears a floppy hat and a beige vest, is harnessed into a pair of binoculars and has a spotting scope slung over his shoulder. I won’t pretend that this description doesn’t apply to some of the birders I’ve encountered over the years, but as the pastime increases in popularity it has found some less-traditional enthusiasts.

The Michigan Bird Brains are a group of young birders organized by their birding mentor and teacher Donna Posont. Many youth birding groups have sprung up around the country, but what makes the Bird Brains unique is that they bird entirely by ear because they are all visually-impaired.  Donna Posont, who is also visually-impaired, teaches her students to identify birds by sound, a skill that can give them a unique advantage over sighted birders as pointed out by one of her students, seventh-grader Austin Shepherd. Sighted people can only focus on one bird at a time while Austin points out, “it’s special because we can hear lots of different birds at once.” The Bird Brains have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count for several years and may take on competitive birding in the future.

At four nursing homes in Connecticut another group of nontraditional birders has emerged: Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Randy Griffin, a registered nurse, seeking ways to improve the lives of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, teamed up with Ken Elkins, an education program manager at a  Southbury, Connecticut Audubon center, to bring birding to residents at four nursing homes in the area.  The program they developed, Bird Tales, introduces Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to birds through pictures, models, and recordings, and also suggests ways to make the nursing home grounds more bird-friendly.

All four of the Connecticut nursing homes using the program now practice organic lawn care to attract more birds to their grounds. Additionally, these nursing homes have seen a significant decrease in the amount of medication they are using to calm agitated patients. Elkins visits each nursing home twice a month and spends about a half an hour with each group. He also trains nurses to continue the program in between his visits.

Urbanites represent another unlikely group of birders. Perhaps the best know urban birding spot is Central Park in New York City. The park is a metropolitan migrant trap to which countless birders flock.  Organized bird walks catering to kids and adults alike are offered regularly in Central Park and are also offered in countless other urban areas across the United States including Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Tucson.

Bool Lagoon, South Australia


By Jenna Gersie

Driving through South Australia doesn’t look like much: mile after mile of flat, dry grassland beneath an endless blue sky; the occasional eucalypt punctuating the farmer’s fields; barbed wire fences lining the roadside and dust rising up from the tires; more sheep than humans.  But amidst this vast and barren landscape I stumbled upon a refuge.  Near the town of Naracoorte, famous for its caves and fossils of extinct Australian megafauna, the swampy Bool Lagoon provides an oasis for birdlife.

Declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1985, Bool Lagoon provides a home to over 150 water bird species, twenty-seven of which are migratory species.  The Latham’s Snipe, for example, winters in South Australia before returning to the grasslands of northern Japan to breed.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that this refuge hosts so many water birds; among the birds I saw were the Black Swan, White Ibis and Straw-necked Ibis, Australasian Shoveler, White-faced Heron, Australian Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt, White-necked Heron, Australian Bittern, Pacific Black Duck, Purple Swamphen, Magpie Goose, and Eurasian Coot.

Bool Lagoon and the adjacent Hacks Lagoon are set aside to provide habitat for birds such as these, to provide a drought refuge for wetland dependent species, and to represent an inland lagoon system that flows over rich alkaline soils.  The basin where Bool Lagoon currently lies began to form 150 million years ago, when Australia began to separate from the larger landmass known as Gondwana.  Fifteen to twenty million years ago, high sea levels deposited sand, silt, and marine sediments in layers up to 6,000 meters thick.  The sea level dropped, but two million years ago, they rose again, this time depositing shelly, sandy limestone and calcareous sands.  When the sea levels dropped again, they eroded away earlier deposits of sediment, creating the siltstone that is found in the lagoon today.  The shallow, circular swamps that make up Bool Lagoon were formed within these layers of sediment by rising ground waters that penetrated the substrate and eroded the limestone.

The Bool Lagoon system, which is made up of the lagoon itself and Mosquito Creek, which feeds floodwaters into the lagoon, together make up a 1500 square kilometer catchment area.  The wetland, when at full capacity, has water that covers 2530 hectares and forms a chain of shallow, freshwater lagoons about 10 kilometers long.  Though the water may be one meter deep during the winter months, it can get quite dry during the summer.  When we visited, we saw both dry ground and dark water, where reeds and rushes thrived.

We walked along a boardwalk, past clumps of Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca halmaturorum), also known as Tea Tree, which provides nesting habitat for thousands of birds.  The wind caught the whispers of the reeds that lined the boardwalk, and the sky was clear except for some small clouds, no more than watermarks on the distant horizon.  A small Whiskered Tern flew about in the wind like a kite being pulled along by a string and a Swamp Harrier spread its wings in the distance in search of food.  Willie Wagtails and Australian Magpies, common in most places, joined the assembly of birds that we watched, up close and through the lenses of our binoculars.

This haven, with its interesting geological, hydrological, and biological features, has relied on the efforts of the community and conservation groups to achieve protection, providing nesting and feeding sites for countless species of birdlife, as well as habitat for threatened animals such as the Southern Bell Frog, Striped Legless Lizard, Yarra Pygmy Perch, and Dwarf Galaxias.

Conservation efforts for Bool Lagoon began as early as 1940, when the Flora and Fauna committee of the South Australian Ornithological Association proposed that it be declared a bird sanctuary.  However, landholders and hunters lobbied to oppose this plan; the hunting community also opposed a plan in 1960 to drain the lagoon.  But ultimately, it was enthusiasm from the hunting community to declare the area a game reserve that afforded Bool Lagoon its protection.  In 1963, the Fisheries and Game Department developed a management plan for Bool Lagoon to hold floodwaters and conserve waterbird habitat, and in 1967, the lagoon was dedicated as a game reserve, while the adjacent Hacks Lagoon was dedicated as a conservation park.

The South Australian Field and Game Association (SAFGA) has been actively involved in conserving the lagoon for years.  Beginning in 1978, the South East Branch of SAFGA has implemented projects in Bool Lagoon such as constructing and monitoring nest boxes, conducting weed control projects, repairing fencing destroyed during bushfires, revegetating areas, and planting Melaleuca seedlings.  SAFGA members have purchased sections of land to add to Bool Lagoon with funds collected from hunting permit fees, and they regularly conduct wetland and waterfowl surveys to properly manage the area.  Today, Bool Lagoon is managed in conjunction with the South-Eastern Drainage Board, which releases floodwaters held within the lagoon at a controlled rate to prevent flooding of the Naracoorte Plains.

Only 11% of wetlands in southeast South Australia remain today, most of which are seasonal and only 14% of which are considered permanent areas of open, fresh water.  This decline in wetland habitat makes Bool Lagoon even more significant for the birdlife that it supports.  Seeing an Australian Bittern fly across the water to hide in the reeds and watching the elegant Black Swans floating on the dark water make me grateful that such areas have been set aside.


What the Birds Taught Me

Red-tailed Hawk

It’s true that the best lessons come in the most unexpected places.  I spent a year working as a raptor handler and environmental educator at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, a non-profit organization that cares for Vermont’s injured avian wildlife and gives a home to non-releasable birds that have sustained permanent injuries.  Going into it, I had no idea that several feathered carnivores would teach me the most important lessons I’ve learned in recent years.

The first thing the birds taught me was to be confident.  I learned this from the Harris’s Hawk, who became my best pal after I spent a winter cutting up his dinner of mice into small pieces, which I used to train him to fly between a perch and my glove.  Harris’s Hawks, unlike most raptors, are social creatures.  They live and hunt in family groups, and because they are used to working cooperatively, they are very trainable and commonly used in falconry.  However, their social nature means that one must be inducted into a Harris’s Hawk’s family flock before the bird is willing to do what you ask.  And until you’re accepted, they can be very aggressive.

Our Harris’s Hawk was no exception.  He would growl, he would lunge, he would adopt an intimidating stance, he would throw a sharply-taloned foot at me.  At first, whenever I put him in his crate to prepare for a program, he would slam his body, feet first, into the door of the crate as I closed it.  He would see me flinch.  Because he saw me flinch, he knew that he was in control, and he continued to slam around.  I knew that I had to stop flinching.  For fear of getting a few talons punched into my skin, I learned to be confident.

The second thing the birds taught me was to be happy.  My supervisor told me early on that the birds pick up on moods and body language and respond accordingly.  I learned this the hard way.  I went into work feeling sad one day, and the birds recognized this and let me know.  First, the one-winged Barred Owl refused to step up onto my glove.  My failure to get her on my glove only frustrated me, further adding to the negative vibe I was giving off.  The Turkey Vulture, a very sweet old lady who has been in captivity for more than 32 years, would not stop lunging at me and biting my hands with her sharp beak as I attempted to take off her leather jesses and anklets.  The Red-tailed Hawk flew into a tree instead of returning to my glove during the program.  And to top it all off, my dear friend the Harris’s Hawk turned away from me on a colleague’s glove, lifted his tail, and let an enormous projectile poop fly at me, hitting me straight in the chest and sliding down the entire length of my body, right before I went out on stage.  He has never pooped so much, before or since.  It was a terrible day at work, but I decided to never go to work upset or angry again.  I learned to be happy.

The birds never reacted so negatively to me again.  I still got plenty of poop on me every now and then, but they say it’s good luck if a bird poops on you, right?  If so, I have enough good luck to last me a lifetime.

It’s easy to consider the value of animals like raptors.  As top predators, they control rodent and other small animal populations.  They certainly provide an aesthetic value, enough to make one of them our national symbol.  But it is the moments that we share privately with wildlife that make us so grateful they share the Earth with us.  Seeing a Peregrine Falcon dive to catch its prey, watching the Turkey Vulture’s dark wings lift it up rising thermals of air, noticing a Red-tailed Hawk perched silently and stoically on the branch of a tree—these are the moments given to us to admire and appreciate nature’s beauty and ferocity.  I was lucky enough to get to know a few individuals.  And just like the other animals we get to know and love, these birds are much more like us than we think.

A Snowy Owl Winter

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus).  Photo by Christine Harris

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Photo by Christine Harris

By Christine Harris

Many birders dream of seeing the elusive snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). So far the winter of 2013 has made that dream a reality for countless avian enthusiasts.  The snowy owl typically inhabits the Arctic and Northern Canada,  yet this winter there have been dozens of reports of sitings from across the contiguous United States, even as far south as Louisville, Kentucky.

According to Marshall Iliff, one of the project coordinators for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ebird website, when populations of rodents such as lemmings are high, snowy owls experience high breeding success. If those rodent populations crash thereafter, overcrowded owls surge southward in search of food, with younger birds typically moving farther. These snowy owl “incursions” or “invasions” generally occur at least once a decade.  This year’s invasion is taking place primarily in Eastern North America, suggesting that the Eastern Arctic was a productive breeding ground for the birds this past summer, and that they are spreading out to find food.

When seeking suitable habitat and feeding grounds away from their Arctic homeland, snowy owls look for places reminiscent of the tundra: large, open areas with few trees to block their view of rodents scampering on the ground.  Many owls choose open coastal beaches and dunes, while those searching for feeding grounds further inland often settle for airports.  Historically, owls that have chosen to spend time at airports have met with mixed fates.

Birds found at airports are often viewed as a threat to safe aviation.  Remember the flock of geese that led to the “miracle on the Hudson?” In 1960 a plane that departed from Logan Airport in Boston crashed shortly thereafter due to a flock of starlings that were sucked up by the planes engines, killing 62 people.  There is no doubt that the threat to aviation posed by birds at airports is real, and different airports employ different methods for deterring birds from spending time on their runways–including frightening or killing them.  Over the years many snowy owls have been shot at airports; in fact, the only snowy owl to ever disperse to Hawaii was shot at the Honolulu Airport in 2012.

This winter the practice of shooting snowy owls at airports was brought to the attention of the general public when three were shot at New York’s JFK Airport.  Boston’s Logan International Airport has snowy owls visit almost every winter and has had a catch and release program in place for decades.  As of December 11, Norman Smith, director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has captured and released 21 snowy owls at Logan Airport and it’s still early in the season.  The most captured in one year to date is 43, but this year could prove to be a record breaker.  Since the beginning of the program over 500 snowy owls have been safely removed from the runways at Logan.

When news broke of the killings at JFK, many asked why New York City did not institute a snowy owl program similar to Boston’s.  Public outrage over the incident led to the New York Port Authority’s decision to work with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation on establishing a catch and release program for New York City airports.  Hopefully New York’s program will meet with the same level of success as that of Boston and future generations of airport-bound snowy owls will be given a second chance.

To Feed or Not to Feed the Birds

By Christine Harris
There are few things I enjoy more than waking up early on a crisp fall morning, making a cup of coffee and peering out the window at the avian activity going on around my many bird feeders.  I have everything a bird could want.  Multiple bird baths, thistle seed, black oil sunflower seed, suet cakes, sugar water; a variable bird-smorgasbord.  My present day fondness for feeding birds was spurred by memories I hold dear of growing up with active bird feeders in my yard and using my dad’s field guides to identify our winged visitors.  Today bird feeders have become an important link to the outside world for many city-dwellers and have been touted as having therapeutic benefits for nursing home residents.  We consider our own enjoyment of the birds, but is this activity really helping them as much as we might believe it to be?  The issue of whether or not to feed wild birds has long been a topic of controversy in ornithological circles.
How could feeding birds be a bad thing, you might ask?  One major concern is that backyard bird feeders are responsible for spreading disease among the birds visiting them.  Whether or not feeders contribute to the spread of avian diseases is a difficult call to make given that most bird species that visit feeders are still associating with other birds in flocks when feeding elsewhere, meaning they may be just as likely to encounter a diseased bird when feeding in another environment.  If you ever do see a bird that appears sick or injured it is best to immediately take down your feeders and wash them thoroughly. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, feeders should be washed with soapy water every two weeks and then soaked in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, regardless of whether or not you have seen sick birds in the area.  Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every time you refill the nectar which should be done every three to five days.
The quality of the seed you are supplying is also important to consider when using outdoor feeders.   Many people hope to save money by buying less expensive bird seed mixes only to discover that birds will bypass their feeders or discard the “filler” in these seeds in favor of a few specific seed types.  Overall black oil sunflower seed is the best bet for attracting a variety species with the same seed type.  This seed is ideal because it is high in fat, relatively small, and has a thin shell that most birds can crack with relative ease.  Any seed that you use should be kept in a sealed container to prevent it from becoming moldy.
What species are coming to your feeders? I am fortunate that I have never seen a house sparrow in my yard, but for many backyard birders this invasive species, or the equally problematic and invasive European starling, will completely dominate their feeders.  Providing a reliable source of food for these species will bring them to your yard in droves and is likely to keep native birds away.  If you find that the majority of the birds visiting your feeders belong to these species it may be best to consider taking them down.
 A frequently voiced concern from backyard bird watchers is that the presence of feeders will prevent birds from leaving when it is time for them to migrate.  Perhaps the most commonly held belief is that hummingbird feeders should be brought in in early fall to prevent the hummingbirds from sticking around and freezing to death.  Though these concerns seem logical, birds evolved their migratory patterns long before humans were feeding them and their migratory instincts are strongly tied to photoperiod (day length). Having seed available to them will not prevent birds from following their instincts.
Though the concerns over the benefit of backyard bird feeders are real, I know that I will continue to enjoy having feeders in my yard for many years to come.  So long as feeders are well-maintained and high quality seed is supplied to native species, bird feeders will always be a good thing in my book.
Photo by Christine Harris

Birds and Brew: How Coffee Plantations Can Help or Hinder Migratory Birds


This yellow warbler summers in North America but travels thousands of miles to spend its winters in Central America. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

As we sit and observe warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks as they flit about our yards and visit our feeders each spring, it is hard to comprehend that these small wonders have traveled thousands of miles from the forests of Central or South America to arrive at our doorsteps. We enjoy these colorful birds while they are here, but how often do we stop to think about where they go in the winter, and what they find when they get there?

After oil, coffee is the most valuable legal export in the world and more than half of the world’s coffee is grown on plantations in Central and South America in Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Columbia. Prior to the 1970’s the majority of these plantations produced shade-grown coffee in which coffee was grown under existing forest cover or under trees planted by the farmer. These types of farms were valuable to the avian community in providing cover and natural food sources. In response to concern about a fungus and a desire for higher yields, coffee growers began to develop more sun-tolerant varieties of coffee in the 1970’s and soon full-sun coffee farms had taken the place of most shade-grown farms. Though full-sun coffee farms produce higher yields, they support less than a quarter the number of bird species as shade-grown farms. Additionally, full-sun farms don’t reap the benefits that trees provide to shade-grown farms in soil quality and erosion control and in turn require the use of more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

As full-sun coffee farms take away valuable habitat, eliminate food sources, and introduce harmful chemicals into the environment, birds that live in Central and South America year round or as winter migrants are facing more of a challenge in finding healthy, food-bearing habitat. Consumers have become more aware of the impact of full-sun coffee farms on the avian community, and many are demanding shade-grown, “bird-friendly” coffees and in turn a panoply of certifications and labeling mechanisms have cropped up to inform consumers of what they are buying. Though wading through the labels can be confusing, knowing the meaning of different certifications can help you to make an informed decision when buying coffee.

Products labelled “bird-friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are subject to the most stringent guidelines. These coffees are organic and meet strict requirements for both the amount of shade and type of forest where the coffee was grown. The environmental certification most often seen on coffee is that of the Rainforest Alliance which also certifies tea, cocoa, and fruit. In order to receive this certification coffee must be produced using alternatives to chemical and pesticide use (though it does not require organic certification), and farms must practice erosion control and limit water use. The Rainforest Alliance does have shade requirements, though not as strict as those required for “bird-friendly” certification. Additionally, coffee blends containing only 30 per cent of beans meeting certification requirements are allowed to carry the label. “Shade-grown” labels are unregulated and appear on many specialty coffees, but carry no guarantee of healthy forest composition or density.

Fortunately there are now several “bird-friendly” coffee options available. To find a distributor near you check out the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly Search at: