Christopher Columbus once described the shores of Cuba as paradise based in part on thousands of colorful birds inhabiting the island. In his official logs, Columbus described the lands he encountered in the Caribbean Islands as an “Earthly Paradise… the melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens.” He and his crews came on shore and witnessed “…the sweetness of little birds, so many and so delightful, and under the shade of palms so tall and fair that it was a wonder to see it all.”
This description resonates with residents of Anna Maria Island. Many species of beautiful, colorful, large and small birds continue to make this island their home as they fish, nest and raise their families here. Locals have taken it upon themselves to actively protect them, making Anna Maria Island a nationally recognized bird and wildlife sanctuary. So important are birds to our island life that this 7-mile island has its very own bird and wildlife rescue organization called Wildlife, Inc.
It’s no wonder that locals and visitors became anxious when one day in early August of this year, all the birds of nearly every species up and left the island together in a mass exodus. The skies were filled with this sudden migration and the silence and stillness they left behind was palpable. Thousands of birds of different species all flying east – off the island – together. I know this to be true because I witnessed it, one particular day, with my own eyes. (Keep reading, I promise you this story has an interesting, silver lining – but to truly appreciate the happy ending, we need journey through some muck).
Sudden irregular bird migrations have happened historically through time. One notable occurrence happened on Seashore Key, an island in the gulf coast, about a hundred or so miles north of Tampa. On April 19th, 2015, Florida’s largest bird sanctuary of the time suddenly and without warning started losing all of its birds. Three days later, the island had been completely abandoned – meaning there was not a single bird left, leaving 20,000 egg bearing nests (and eggs) behind. There was plenty of food, no apparent chemical disaster, no threatening storm, nothing apparent that would have caused this. The birds just up and left and although there are theories to this day about what happened, no one is sure exactly why. What we do know is the birds did not die and no dead birds were ever found on or near the island.
It is an eerie feeling to realize that something many never stop to notice, becomes hugely noticed once it is gone. This past August, for a brief time, the songs shorebirds sang were not heard, the skies became inactive with the absence of feathered flight and the beaches looked lifeless without birds nesting and hopping about. For me, when those birds left, I noticed. Everything felt different without them. It was as though one could hear a pin drop despite the crashing waves on the shore.
However, things this time were different from the Seashore Key incident of 2015. For one, and this is the bad news – this time we know Red Tide is to blame. That horrible and sometimes devastating algae that takes the oxygen out of the salty waters it thrives in, killing the fish that birds feed on. In this year’s wake, volunteers and founders of Wildlife, Inc. had braced themselves for dozens of birds to be delivered to them for rehabilitation. The good news – those dozens never came and they instead received only a fraction of what was expected. The vast majority of birds did NOT get sick, starve or die. They migrated to a new food source! Manatee County is extremely unique in its abundance of estuaries, parks and preserves that are unaffected by Red Tide and that provide alternative food sources and places of sanctuary for our wildlife. These estuaries and preserves provide important habitats, permanently and sometimes temporarily, to all types of wildlife – including our beloved birds. (I think I just left a cliffhanger for a future article.)
Luckily for us, knowing what caused this bird migration has brought us together to work even harder to reduce the impact of Red Tide on our wildlife, our local economy and the livelihood of those who work and live here. For months I have seen people banding (and bonding) together. Our community is uniting to help raise funds for wildlife organizations as well as to support our local businesses and assist those left underemployed. Weekly dining, fundraising and shopping events (all open to the public) are happening in our local restaurants and parks to raise funds and give support to those who have suffered. Local churches are donating food from their food shelves to help individuals with reduced incomes and people are getting involved in their local governments to effect change. We are also making many new friends along the way. Although I long for the day that we reduce the number of incidents, size and severity of Red Tide – a battle we will succeed in winning – it has been a positive thing to witness just how much we can all agree to work together to battle for common causes. At times when we are constantly reminded of our differences, it is a welcomed change of dialogue. Anna Maria Island may not be the only place that has inhabitants willing to work together for each other, but it sure makes this island a great place to visit and reside in and gives us the chance to be a part of something bigger and stronger. It’s a chance to be survivors – the way islanders for eons have known all too well how to be.
Now, I bet you are left wondering, “O.K. that is truly great, but what happened to the birds??!! Where are they and will they ever come back?!” I will not leave you hanging any longer and after all, I promised a happy ending, right? In a single day on Labor Day weekend, sitting on a balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, to my amazement something spectacular happened! The birds returned, what appeared to me to be all of them, with a SPLASH! It was a bird bath of unprecedented proportions. A “feathered orgy”, with thousands and I mean thousands of birds of all species playing in the water, splashing and bathing, singing like I have never heard, diving for fresh, healthy, live fish, soaring above the waters and strolling the sandy white beaches. It was a “wild” beach party like I have never seen! I watched this beautiful spectacle for over 2 hours straight as if in a trance. I can’t remember the last time I watched my own child for over 2 hours straight and here I was, unable to move from my spot on the balcony. I could almost imagine how Christopher Columbus felt when he wrote about all the beautiful birds on the shores of the Caribbean islands, making his crew “unable to part from their spot”. The birds of Anna Maria Island brought back natural beauty, sound, scenery and life. For me, an island paradise is being restored, or at least beginning to thrive again, with their return.
But hey, don’t just take my word for it, come and see for yourself by visiting, dining, shopping and strolling the lovely beaches in our “sanctuary by the sea.” We would love to see you. I’m sure you will breathe easy – literally and metaphorically.
Photos courtesy of Island Photography by Dara Caudill and Deborah Wing