If we build it, will they come? The future Rookery at Wildflower Preserve

October 22, 2021
By Tonya Bramlage

The Lemon Bay Conservancy and partners are proud to announce that after a decade of hard work, committed partnerships, a vast amount of volunteer hours and dedication to vision, they successfully completed the habitat restoration at Lemon Creek Wildflower Preserve on January 25, 2021.

Two small islands were purposefully created and are now located in the heart center of the preserve. One is in freshwater Long Pond on the eastern side of the preserve. The other is in the new estuarine lagoon on the western side of the preserve that receives tidal flow from Lemon Creek. The long term goal for the islands is to turn them into future rookery sites for nesting birds.

Rookeries are relatively small areas in which large numbers of water birds congregate to nest. They are typically located in a place where it is difficult for predators to reach, such as an island or a group of trees located over water. The wood stork was listed as a federally “endangered species” in 1984 due to the severe drop in stork population throughout the 1900s. The “endangered” classification means that there is a concern that this species could become extinct if the negative impacts continue.

The population decline was thought to result from loss and alteration of the wetland feeding habitats storks need to survive. Wood storks typically nest in groups termed colonies or rookeries. Other wading bird species such as egrets, herons and ibis often nest at the same sites. Although storks can and do use standard flapping flight for short trips, they prefer to soar in convective currents or thermals, circling in these rising pockets of warm air to reach altitudes of one to three thousand feet before gliding to their destination or the next thermal.

The endangered status of the wood stork results primarily from human impacts on the south Florida ecosystem as well as the effects of wetland loss and alteration on the regional landscape where storks try to live. An extensive, multi-agency effort is currently underway to restore the natural hydrology of the Everglades ecosystem in south Florida and re-establish consistent stork nesting there. On the local level, landowners and managers can impact stork nesting, feeding and roosting sites in both positive and negative ways.

The new islands are sparsely populated, so the basic idea is to build artificial nesting platforms that will create immediate nesting locations and, over time, to populate the island with native trees and shrubs that will provide future nesting habitat.

Nesting birds create a heavy nutrient load that can cause algae blooms in ponds. Decaying algae can cause an obnoxious foul smelling odor and a fish kill when the algae consumes the pond’s oxygen. Another challenge with rookeries is the high concentration of guano that kills the trees in which the birds are nesting. Roosts are areas where large numbers of birds congregate for the night or, in the case of some birds, when high tides prevent them from feeding. In the case of egrets, herons, ibis and storks, a rookery may become a roost after the breeding season is over. Adding several tons of lime per acre helps to neutralize the acidity of the accumulated bird droppings, but this must be applied during the non-nesting season. Inevitably some trees die and are subsequently replaced by species that are more tolerant of low pH conditions.

LBC is looking for volunteers to help to develop the western island, with a specific focus on trying to attract wood storks. Donations are welcome as well.

Historical records show that in the first half of the 20th century, much of the Cape Haze peninsula was heavily forested and that wide-spread clear-cutting removed many of the trees. We don’t know if that was the case for the land that is now Wildflower Preserve, but it is a good guess. Old timers say that there was a time when fisherman took their boats up Lemon Creek all the way to Lemon Lake (now part of Amberjack Environmental Park), but by 1951, aerial photos show that the Placida Road bridge over Lemon Creek would most likely have limited passage of all but very small boats.

Studying aerial photos from 1951 and 1970, before residential development began, it appears that the property was primarily being used for livestock grazing. The tidal waters of Lemon Creek are visible in the photos and there appear to be wetland areas running through the center of what would become the golf course property. In the early 1970s, a development group began developing the golf course and all the surrounding neighborhoods as part of a large planned development community. Wildflower Golf Course opened around 1974.

The 18-hole executive golf course operated from the early 1970s to 2006. At that time, the owner began efforts to sell the property and a development firm from Miami proposed to convert the land to condominiums. Many in the local area were opposed to development of the property. Research proved that some density units claimed for the property were no longer available.

When the real estate market crashed, the property was listed for $2 million (down from an initial possible sale price of $8 million). After extensive negotiations, Lemon Bay Conservancy signed a $750,000 purchase agreement for the property in the summer of 2010, with three months to raise the necessary funds.

Through a generous bequest from Verna Rogers’ estate and contributions from Wildflower neighbors and supporters throughout the community, $500,000 was quickly raised. A local philanthropist stepped in to loan LBC $250,000 to close the purchase in September 2010. Fundraising continued, and that loan was paid off in September 2011.

The Lemon Bay Conservancy is currently seeking one or more volunteers to become project leaders in designing and developing this project. If you would like to get involved, contact the LBC office at 941-830-8922 or send an email to LBConservancy@comcast.net.

Lemon Bay Conservancy is also seeking funds to build the nesting platforms and purchase plants. Contact the office to make your special Rookery Island donation, or make your contribution online by visiting: lemonbay.app.neoncrm.com/np/clients/lemonbay/donation.jsp?campaign=108&.

If we build it, will the birds come?  Everyone is looking forward to finding out what The Lemon Bay Conservancy members, our local community, and the stork bring.