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Back to the Birds

For years, a rope has hung across a few acres of sea oats on this island's southern tip.

South of the rope, the area off limits to people, hundreds of birds _ oystercatchers, willets, royal terns, laughing gulls _ stand shoulder to shoulder along a thin strip of beach.

To the north, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people anchor their boats and sunbathe on an isolated gulf beach.

Now, the rope is about to move.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to give shorebirds more room to roam on Egmont Key and beach visitors less room to lay their towels.

At year end, its wildlife sanctuary will grow 10 times larger; nearly half its beach area will be closed permanently to the public.

On an island with a colorful history and a conflicting set of official uses, the next chapter belongs to the birds.

"More precious than gold'

Egmont Key became a national wildlife refuge in 1974. The idea was to create a nesting area for pelicans and other water birds. But it also is the historic site of a crumbling fort left by armies bunkered at the mouth of a strategically important bay. And it's a charming state park that became a favorite weekend getaway to 100,000 registered Tampa Bay boaters.

As the number of visitors multiplied, many of the island's shorebirds stopped nesting. Those remaining often fled _ leaving their eggs exposed to bake in the sun _ when people and dogs approached.

Cameron Shaw, the federal manager of five wildlife refuges from Crystal River to Tampa Bay, said the Fish and Wildlife Service had to limit human use of the island.

"If we can't protect birds and wildlife on a national wildlife refuge, where can we protect them?" he asked.

The decision "is going to be very positive from a wildlife standpoint," he said. "From a visitor standpoint, I think it depends on what you're looking for.

"If you want to spread out a beach blanket, listen to a radio and catch some rays, it's going to give you less area to do that," he said. "But for visitors who want to come out and enjoy a natural area, see some wildlife, maybe take a guided tour, I think they're going to find their visits enhanced by what we're doing."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is restricting recreation at a number of wildlife refuges around the country. It is doing so partly in response to a National Audubon Society lawsuit that accused the government of neglecting the primary purpose of those refuges: wildlife protection.

At Egmont, the service conceded a major point to boaters who showed up at a February hearing to protest the plan.

The agency agreed to leave open a beach area on the island's southeast side that visitors described as the best place to anchor larger boats and the safest refuge in a storm. Instead, a beach area bordered by seagrasses to the north will be closed.

"I'm happy they listened to the boaters," said Alan Wendt, a boat marketer who regularly takes his 37-foot Sea Ray out to Egmont Key. "It's a great place to escape to. We all want to do our part to keep its beauty and the habitat that's there."

Rich Paul, the manager of Audubon Society sanctuaries in the Tampa Bay area, also likes the revised plan. It lets boaters keep their cove, benefits seagrass beds and enlarges a critically important wildlife refuge on one of the area's last undeveloped islands, he said.

"What remains is more precious than gold to these species," he said.

He expects the birds of Egmont to multiply with the expanded sanctuary. "Birds can be very good at figuring out where protected areas are," he said.

Egmont then and now

To the strains of Jimmy Buffett singing of cheeseburgers in paradise, the Fantasy Island sets sail from St. Pete Beach.

Its destination: Egmont Key, the banana-shaped island west of Fort De Soto Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County.

Most of the passengers are first-time visitors who crowd the stern with cameras and "ooh" at the sight of dolphins playing in the boat's wake.

One man has made the trip countless times. Karl Gustavson, a former boat captain, has frequented Egmont since boyhood, when he and his friends bunked in its abandoned fort.

Back then, "you could be out there two or three days and not see but a couple of boats," he said.

Two years ago, Gustavson went to Egmont on July Fourth and found what looked like a marina. Almost 400 boats ringed the island.

The prettiest island he knows "is being trashed," he said. "Something has to be done. We'll lose all the bird habitat."

By the wildlife service's count, the yearly number of visitors to Egmont has grown from about 30,000 in the early 1980s to nearly 80,000 in recent years.

For much of the last century, Egmont Key was a military garrison. Seminoles were held here in the 1850s on their way to exile in Oklahoma. The federal Navy seized the island in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War, it became Fort Dade, a military base that grew to house 400 soldiers and featured tennis courts and a bowling alley. It even had its own post office.

Fort Dade's brick roads and railroad tracks can still be seen, along with its decaying fortifications. Its buildings are on the northern side of the island and will remain open to the public.

While a federal agency is turning much of the island's south end into an expanded wildlife sanctuary, the job of enforcing these restrictions will fall to state park employees.

Park manager Robert Baker has two rangers _ a thin crew, in his view _ to serve as maintenance staff, fire department, emergency rescue squad, tour guide and law enforcement agency.

"On the plus side, most people support the wildlife program," he said, "and they help to enforce it."

As barrier islands along the Florida coast developed into beach towns, nesting areas for shore birds and sea turtles shrank, and their populations plummeted. Egmont was no different, with few birds successfully nesting there in recent years.

In 1993, a federal and state effort to increase protection of the existing sanctuary led to successful nesting by 60 pairs of black skimmers, gull-like birds with a distinctive black cap and orange beak.

In 1994, 115 pairs of black skimmers nested successfully on the island, along with 32 least terns and one American oystercatcher.

Last year the number of skimmer nests grew to 145, but the birds were chased away by human activity, the wildlife service said.

Every nest was abandoned.