Lorraine Margeson tamped the sugar sand gently around a wooden stake as storm clouds mushroomed above her.
She then rolled out string between several stakes, marking an area to warn visitors about nesting shorebirds. Within minutes, the clouds swirled into a waterspout, touching down on the gulf's surface before disappearing back into the dark clouds. It soon started pouring.
"And this is what you are rewarded with out here," Margeson said.
Margeson, 61, of St. Petersburg refers to herself as an environmental activist whose focus is shorebirds. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native began her volunteer work after moving to this area in 1987.
She now monitors and counts birds on a 26-acre, boomerang-shaped shoal she calls "Outback Key." It lies between Fort De Soto Park and Shell Key Preserve, near the mouth of Tampa Bay.
According to Margeson, the shoal formed about five years ago and is now home to nesting American oystercatchers, least terns, black skimmers, Wilson's plovers and snowy plovers. Margeson said two loggerhead turtles also recently laid eggs there. The shorebirds nest in Florida between April and September, when boaters frequent the shoal on weekends.
Her hope is that they'll heed the warnings and stay away from the area that she's "posted"with stakes, twine and signs.
People and their dogs, she said, can be a bigger threat than storms with high tides or predators like great blue herons.
She heard from friends and volunteers that someone recently drove his ATV through a nesting area on Anna Maria Island.
"It wiped them out," she said. "Just like that, overnight, all of your work can be gone."
During a recent, early-morning trip to Outback Key, Margeson was pleasantly surprised by what she found. No markers had been knocked down, and footprints remained outside the nesting areas.
Better yet, she counted 99 least tern nests, up from 49 the week before. Six black skimmer nests were active, and she saw an American oystercatcher nest nestled among sea oats.
She posts her findings on a Facebook page she created called Friends of Outback Key.
"People are getting it," she said. "But you've got to keep educating them, so the chicks have a chance to survive."