About an hour before sunset, the birds begin their descent to a bushy thicket of trees in a pond in a subdivision two minutes from the bustle of N Dale Mabry Highway.
Here, there's safety in numbers.
And on this island, about the size of a sprawling house, 600 to 700 wading birds have built nests forming a rookery. Their are nine species in this breeding ground, and some stand 4 feet tall with a 5-foot wing span and weigh as much as 7 pounds. They are carnivorous, with long bills for hunting fish in shallow waters. They value their personal space. No mammals can set foot on this island. If they did, the sanctuary would be compromised.
So we watch from the sidelines. Thirty 30 homes back the pond, and from a grassy shore anyone can stop to see the nursery in action, just south of N Lakeview Drive on Sagebrush Road.
Cheryl Merz, 46, and Pat Lewis, 74, pull onto the grass at 6:30 p.m. at least once a week during breeding season, which starts at the end of January. Audubon of Florida volunteers, they're here to protect the colony. Both wear T-shirts with birds on them and carry binoculars. The rookery is one of nine that are tracked locally by Project Colony Watchers.
This site has the largest nesting wood stork population of all the bird colonies in Hillsborough County, Merz said. Unlike some of the others, it's densely populated, with "birds on top of birds."
It's also close to the shore for easy viewing.
"Who do we got coming in?" Lewis said to Merz, as they both aimed their binoculars at a swooping bird.
"Cattle egret," said Merz.
Lewis made a mark on her clipboard.
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The evening show includes scores of parents descending for the night with food for babies. The chicks stand and dip their heads up and down and caw and yank at their parents' beaks. Parents make them work for their food. They won't bring it to them much longer.
They've come a long way from the infants who ate regurgitated fish from the nest floor weeks earlier.
The birds are solitary hunters, combing the surrounding miles for food. But at home, they greet each other with chirps and caws and squawks.
A young great egret flapped on clumsy wings that took it about 6 feet from its nest. A black-crowned night heron, Merz's favorite, flew to a tree on the shore near her and stared around the tree. Merz aimed her camera at it.
"Remember that time I caught those two arguing?" Lewis asked Merz, describing the scene when the spike-haired tricolored herons sparred.
Female anhingas alight on a tall pine and playfully squabble and peck.
Three of the island's species are classified as "of special concern," Merz said.
The wood storks are endangered. Neighbors say they've been here 30 years.
Baby wood storks eat 15 times a day in early weeks and go through about 400 pounds of fish before they fledge, or fly off on their own.
Imagine the smell. And the noise.
This year, Lewis and Merz watched the storks mate, with the males clattering his bill loudly and striking it against the females. They watched 116 wood storks fledge from the rookery.
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It was volunteers who started Audubon in Florida about 100 years ago, when plume hunters killed wading birds to decorate ladies' hats. These volunteers later preserved the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where a cypress forest once held the nation's largest wood stork rookery. The species hit a low count of a couple thousand in the 1970s. More recently, they've began breeding as far north as North Carolina and may soon come off the endangered list.
Merz and Lewis met at an Audubon meeting two years ago at Harley-Davidson of Brandon, another rookery site.
They have since traipsed through woods, fields and creeks.
Some people like flowers and others like stamps. These two always have their eyes trained skyward, they say.
Once, Lewis almost drove into a lake as she stared at a bird.
They plan to put up signs on the shore next nesting season to ask people to be kind to the birds.
One night when they arrived, a bird was tangled in fishing line and hanging from a tree over the water.
Merz waded out neck deep to cut it free. She put it in a box, placed it in the water, and launched it over to the island. She wouldn't risk threatening the island's sanctity with her footsteps.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.