“Save my birdies."
That's the plea 10-year-old Catherine Hicks Paul, who lives on Clam Bayou, made to the City Council on Tuesday. • Wearing a long white sundress, the soon-to-be-fifth-grader at Azalea Elementary approached the dais on which the council was seated during the meeting's public session.
Wise beyond her years and well spoken, Catherine told the council the story of a white egret she named Eatey that lives in the mangroves on the bayou but makes daily visits to her back yard.
Her family moved to the home on the bayou in March.
One day in June when Eatey landed for its daily visit, something was wrong, she told the council.
The bird appeared disoriented and dizzy and collapsed in the yard. As she worried about what to do, the bird gathered its strength and flew out across the bayou, only to collapse into it.
Catherine said she was going to borrow the neighbor's canoe to go out to help Eatey but, once again, the bird gathered enough strength to fly home in the mangroves.
She sought answers from her family about what could have been wrong with the egret. Her college-age sister told Catherine she had written a paper about toxins and stormwater runoff for a class. Catherine said her sister helped her find a report on the toxins in Clam Bayou that was done by the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.
That report, which confirmed her sister's findings, made Catherine take action. She wrote several letters to the Southwest Florida Water Management District and media outlets to try to get help for Eatey and other animals in the bayou.
"My back yard is the bayou, and all kinds of trash and garbage float by my yard," Catherine said.
She said that twice, Swiftmud representatives came to her classroom to give talks on Clam Bayou.
"Why do they try to teach kids about runoff and then stand by and do nothing when a whole lot of fish, birds and other wildlife are dying from runoff?" she said. "I'm here today to implore you to take actions that will stop the pollution of Clam Bayou and begin healing and restoring my birdie friends' home."
She invited the council to her home to see what she sees. Mayor Mike Yakes assured her that he would be there. He said environmental people are working hard, though it's hard to gauge their success.
Swiftmud is working to restore Clam Bayou's ecosystems and treat stormwater runoff among seven sites and 44 acres. The project is to be done next spring.
As for Eatey, the bird isn't as chipper as it once was, but is still around.