A donation can be as small as some spare change in a bellringer's bucket in front of Publix. But for the Florida Audubon Society, this season's donation came in the form of an island.
The small bird sanctuary formerly owned by Howard Miller and his family is a few hundred yards from the inlet that dead-ends behind the Loews Don CeSar Hotel. Buffered by buildings and trees from the Pinellas Bayway, the 2-acre island goes unnoticed by many who don't live immediately nearby.
"There wasn't any real thought that this was a bird rookery or that this was a special place for nesting birds," Miller said, recalling when he lived near the island in his youth. "It was just part of the neighborhood."
According to Audubon Sanctuary manager Mark Rachal, the island is home to several rare species of birds, including the roseate spoonbill and the reddish egret, the nation's rarest egret. Only 350 pairs of reddish egrets nest in Florida, and this island is one of the few spots they choose to nest. Removed from terrestrial predators like raccoons, the island provides a safe nesting spot for all the species of birds, reaching a population of nearly 1,000 birds by the end of the year.
Miller and his family didn't realize they owned the island until his father died in 2010. The island was included in the property purchased by his grandfather for the Rellim Hotel, which closed in 1981. While the land was sold to make room for the Marina Bay condos, Miller found a tax bill for the island in a box of his father's papers.
"We just started thinking about the fact that there's this bird colony there," Miller said, "and it might be nice to do something that would keep it there perpetually and have it be taken care of."
Within a year, the Audubon Society reached out to Miller about the island, and the transfer was made. It is now tended by the Audubon's Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, a volunteer-based group that first began watching over the sanctuary unofficially around 2005.
"We make it our business to find all the nesting sites in the Tampa Bay area," Rachal said.
Director David Howard and his wife, Barb, work with Audubon's regional coordinator, Ann Paul, to conduct visual surveys, counting nests and species.
One challenge the group faces in maintaining the island is fishing line. Discarded line catches in the mangroves, entangling any birds that might wander through it. The group goes on fishing-line expeditions, collecting as much as 350 yards at a time.
"It's important every time that we get a place that the birds like to nest to protect it," Barb Howard said, "because we're losing so much habitat to development."