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Cleaning the Mangrove Rookery Islands – Just For the Birds

Mar 3rd, 2016 | Category: Announcements, MDC News

By Lisa D. Mickey


Chad Truxall cleaning monofilament at the bird rookery in New Smyrna Beach

All that was left were bones picked clean by vultures.

And those bones were tied tightly to mangrove roots on the ground. Even with scissors and a knife, we struggled to clear the monofilament fishing line wrapped and wrapped around the feet of a dead pelican.

“This bird didn’t have a chance,” said my colleague Chad Truxall, as he sawed on the line with his knife.

“What a horrible way to die – slowly and helplessly,” I added.

That was the scene underneath the mangrove trees on the bird rookery islands here in New Smyrna Beach during our annual cleaning of the islands. In a tradition that was started at the Marine Discovery Center by Mark Spradley and Marilyn Sullivan, a small team of us recently returned to the islands at low tide to clear as much fishing line off the trees as possible before the birds begin nesting this spring.


MDC bird rookery clean-up

Our group included Sullivan, MDC executive director Truxall, MDC volunteer Jim Musante, and me. We trucked kayaks over to a launch area adjacent to the two bird rookery islands on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and paddled to the islands, ready to tug and cut line, and to even climb trees in an effort to assure a safer nesting place for our feathered friends.

The two islands are covered in mangrove trees surrounded by oysters and are inhabited only by birds, which makes it appealing for the annual nesters. There are no raccoons, possums, dogs, cats or even people to disturb the nests.


New Smyrna Beach Rookery

And each year, up to seven species – brown pelicans, great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons and tri-colored herons – arrive to build nests and rear their chicks. In some years, the colony approaches nearly 200 nests with two to three chicks per nest, and with two attending adults. It’s a busy place.

But it’s also a dangerous place to these birds if monofilament fishing line is allowed to accumulate. Anglers sometimes fish too close to the islands and simply cut their snagged line, allowing it to wrap around the mangrove trees and ultimately, around the islands’ only inhabitants.


monofilament stuck in mangrove tree, brought in by a bird and waiting to trap another bird

Pelicans and egrets also sometimes develop bad habits of begging around anglers and become entangled in their fishing line. Rather than gently reeling in the entangled bird and cutting the line as close to the bird’s bill as possible, anglers may simply cut the line, allowing a bird with yards of trailing line to fly back to the rookery island. A bird trailing fishing line endangers itself, as well as other birds when the line drapes around the mangrove tree limbs. This nearly invisible line is often a death sentence to birds that venture too close and become twisted in the monofilament.

At this time of year, the various bird species begin looking for mates and building nests in the tops of the rookery-island trees. They build their nests by gathering twigs, branches and vines, carefully layering the materials to form a natural platform on which to rear their future chicks.

There are not yet chicks on the rookery islands, but some of the birds have started building nests and we were surprised at some of the nesting material we found. In two different nests, birds had started construction with an assortment of “twigs” that included the broken tips of fishing rods, along with the accompanying fishing line. We carefully extracted the fishing gear and left the remainder of the nesting material for those two nests.

During the cleaning of the islands this year, we found the remains of “only” four dead birds – a snowy egret, an ibis and two pelicans. In past years, we have removed fishing line from 10 to 15 dead birds per visit, with some literally swinging from the limbs, suspended by ankles, wings or their throats.

We have continued the annual tradition of cleaning the rookery with a commitment to protect our nesting birds as much as possible. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty under there. You sink in the muck up to your knees and the bird guano has layered over the years, covering everything like a giant, white, dripping sculpture. It has made the trees so brittle that when you sink in the muck and try to grab a tree to pull yourself out, the limb often snaps in your hands.

But those of us who care about these birds are able to put aside a few hours of stench and deplorable conditions for the hope of seeing more birds take wing from this site. Each spring, they return — fishing line or not — and it’s our goal to make their nesting home safer.


NSB Rookery Debris

I’ve done this rookery island cleaning for many years, but one of my most lasting memories came a few years ago when we encountered a live white ibis while we were working under the mangrove trees. The bird had a fishhook in one wing and hung suspended from a tree while it thrashed to free itself with its other wing. We were able to capture the ibis, cut the hook out of its wing, remove the fishing line and watch it fly away. It was a beautiful sight.

And that’s the real hope for these two rookery islands – that this year’s nursery of birds will be born, nurtured in a safe environment and fly away, returning the following year to start the cycle all over again.

Lisa D. Mickey may be reached at lisa@marinediscoverycenter.org

Marine Discovery Center, March 2, 2016 NSB Rookery Clean-up

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