BRANDON — Tucked away behind a row of car dealerships, a nursery hatches every spring in an old water-filled sand mine a few city blocks from bustling State Road 60.
Motorists zoom back and forth to work or shopping centers, oblivious of the birds that make similar commutes for food and nest-building supplies as they transform a tiny island in the center of the pit into bird central.
Wood storks, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, anhinga and several kinds of egrets and herons swoop in and out of the noisy colony, making small but significant contributions to the continuation of their species.
Of the approximately 50,000 pairs of colonial water birds recorded as nesting in Hillsborough County each year, the vast majority raise their young on islands in Tampa Bay. But about 3,000 pairs choose out-of-the-way spots in such far-flung reaches as Citrus Park in northwest Hillsborough, Cross Creek in the northeast, East Lake and Robles Park in the county's center. In east Hillsborough, the nesting takes place in Medard Park, east of Valrico, and as far south as Cockroach Bay near Ruskin.
"A lot of them are at little places like this," said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida's Coastal Islands Sanctuaries program, as she stood near the shore of the watery pit on the western fringe of Brandon.
"These kinds of places add up."
Last week, she chose the Brandon pit for a training session for volunteers in Project ColonyWatch, a program Audubon started about seven years ago. With only two paid staffers, it's difficult to visit the 12 to 15 known small rookeries in Hillsborough more than once a season, Paul said.
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This year, Tampa Audubon Society members stepped up to help. About a dozen turned out last week for the program's kickoff of a nest-watching season that will last until about July.
Paul gave the group tips on how to respect private property, how to identify nesting pairs, how to distinguish big chicks from their parents and how to count different species when their nests are many and varied.
"We want to know if the colony gets negatively impacted so we can work together for a better solution," she said. Sometimes volunteers observe a colony starting strong early in the season, only to be abandoned a few months in. Usually that means a storm or predators destroyed the rookery, Paul said.
Sometimes the birds will start again in the same spot later in the season, she said. Other times, they'll give up or try another location.
Paul said factors that make birds see home-sweet-home often pose dangers for humans. She pointed to signs posted at the pit, warning of alligators.
"The alligator is totally our friend here because that is why the raccoons and feral cats don't come in," Paul said. However, the reptilian presence means ColonyWatch participants need to stay a safe distance from the water's edge, she added.
Water birds often choose to nest on islands to reduce the threat of predators, she said.
Information collected by the ColonyWatch program is useful to federal and state agencies that make decisions about special protections for birds at risk of extinction, Paul said. Seasonal habitat information also can be important to planning agencies that review sites for development and may not see wildlife use if they visit when nesting is not ongoing.
"That's information nobody else has, and I think that's really valuable," Paul told volunteers. "That's the team you are on."
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Volunteers also have helped Audubon add colonies to its lists.
Sandy Reed of Valrico recently spotted a previously undocumented bird colony on an island in the middle of a pond and alerted Audubon experts. She said she had lived in the area for 20 years without realizing such wildlife activities were going on in suburban neighborhoods. About two years ago, she joined Tampa Audubon.
"My kids have fledged, and I'm retired," Reed said. "So now I have time for the birds."
People also can help the birds have a successful nesting season by avoiding any activity that might cause adult birds to leave their nests unattended, including getting too close. Audubon staff members will patrol coastal islands during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend to remind boaters to stay away if signs warn of bird colonies.
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]