It's the dawn of autumn, and beachgoers here still bake in temperatures around 90 degrees.
People from New England or the Great Lakes climb into their recreational vehicles and scurry south in climate-controlled comfort to beat the first frosty blasts of winter. Some relax at Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park or hop on a ferry for a day trip to Hillsborough's Egmont Key.
High above, other cold-weather refugees work harder to get here, their wings beating through wind and rain, maybe for 1,000 miles or more. They have done their duty by Mother Nature. They have built nests, tended eggs and chicks and coaxed the next generation of birds into flight. Like their human counterparts, they seek respite from the storm.
And Tampa Bay delivers. So well, that the region recently snagged its third designation as a Global Important Bird Area, or IBA, from the National Audubon Society, according to criteria established by BirdLife International, a nonprofit that promotes bird conservation worldwide.
The latest spot to earn the distinction is dubbed Lower Tampa Bay, anchored by Egmont, Shell and Passage keys and Fort De Soto.
A big part of the reason is a little shorebird called the piping plover, a threatened species that nests in Michigan, Wisconsin, Canada and coastal New England but spends most of the year on the islands of Lower Tampa Bay.
The region also is important to several kinds of warblers and other songbirds that need a pit stop on the long flight from the top of the United States to Central or South America.
"They need areas where there are trees for cover and food because they're exhausted by the time they get to land," said Marianne Korosy, a conservation biologist overseeing the IBA program for Audubon of Florida.
In much of the state, she said, "we're up against coastal development that wipes out all the trees."
Egmont by itself meets another criterion for the designation: During the spring and summer nesting months, the island hosts an average of 30,000 pairs of laughing gulls, which account for more than 1 percent of the world's population of the species.
Lower Tampa Bay joins two other regional sites that already have the global designation: Hillsborough Bay, including the Alafia Banks in Gibsonton and nearby Tampa Port Authority spoil islands; and an area off the coast of Pasco and Pinellas counties that includes Caladesi and Honeymoon islands and Anclote Key.
The Tampa Bay sites are among 35 in Florida that have been recognized as globally significant and about 400 nationwide.
Audubon's IBA program began in 1999 but went dormant in 2002 because of lack of funding, Korosy said. Thanks to donations and a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant related to the BP oil spill, the program was resurrected in February with the hiring of Korosy as program coordinator.
Julie Wraithmell, Audubon's wildlife conservation director in Tallahassee, declined to specify the funding amount but said it is in the tens of thousands of dollars. She said Audubon is committed to continuing the IBA program beyond the jumpstart of oil spill funding.
Wraithmell and Korosy said the goal is to examine areas crucial to bird survival, identify threats and develop strategies to reduce those threats and enhance the habitat, including land management and public policy decisions.
Egmont is an example of stewardship success. After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the site in cooperation with the state parks division, closed a southern stretch of the island to beachgoers in 1988, the number of successful nests climbed from nearly zero to more than 30,000 a year.
Besides the gulls, terns, white ibis, brown pelicans and even a few American oystercatchers raise their young there.
Yet a visit this week revealed numerous dangers. As Korosy and Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joyce Kleen patrolled the beach, three young brown pelicans floundered in the waves lapping the shore, unable to take to the skies because their wings were tangled in fishing line.
One of the pelicans found itself in a heart-wrenching dance with a laughing gull, whose foot was caught in the wire. Tied to the pelican, the gull took flight only to be yanked to Earth by the hobbled larger bird.
If Kleen and state park rangers can't catch the birds and cut the line, the duo will likely meet the fate of a dead gull that lay nearby in a heap bound by glistening strands of fishing lines.
"It's not a pleasant death," Kleen said. Egmont managers said pelicans trying to snatch a meal from anglers at the nearby Sunshine Skyway fishing piers bring the deadly twine to the island.
Erosion is another significant threat. Records show Egmont was about twice its current size in the late 1800s, Kleen said. It measured almost 400 acres in 1974, when the federal government acquired it. Kleen said it has shrunk to about 300 acres, the victim of wind, tides and storms.
Human disturbance also threatens the birds, but Kleen and Korosy said volunteers who watch over the closed areas and discourage boaters from landing have improved the birds' odds of survival.
Audubon believes harnessing the energy of volunteer stewards is one of the best conservation strategies, Korosy said.
"If you can get people engaged, they make powerful advocates for that site."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.