Mark Rachal steps into the 20-foot center console skiff, throwing rope lines back into the boat and motoring towards the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary.
As he moves away from the boat launch, Brown Pelicans, Forster’s Terns, and Great Egrets wheel across the blue sky overhead, a testament to the importance of the bird habitat here, not only during nesting season, but year round.
As Sanctuary Manager at Alafia, Rachal is charged with inspecting nearly 5,000 feet of newly installed living shoreline breakwater arrays along the north shores of both Sunken and Bird Islands, the two islands of the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary that comprise a state CWA.
Over the years, erosion from ship wakes and storm events threatened these nesting sites. Audubon has been working to devise a more resilient future by protecting crucial nesting islands from sea level rise as well as battering storm surges and ship wakes.
In 2011, Audubon began construction of a new living shoreline breakwater near the edge of Sunken Island. The concrete wave attenuation devices — known as WADs — that make up the breakwater intercept incoming wave energy before it hits the shoreline, slowing or even stopping erosion altogether. The calm water between the island and the breakwater provides foraging and nesting habitat. Phases 1 and 2 — encompassing 1,000 linear feet near the shore of Sunken Island — were completed in 2014.
Hurricanes have demonstrated the effectiveness of these measures; trees behind the structures survived the storm surge while those along adjacent, unprotected shorelines did not. Rachal cruises past the long-finished segments of the living shoreline to the just-completed segment along the north shore of the two islands.
In 2019, Rachal and his team worked with Living Shorelines Solutions and Cypress Gulf Development to install an additional 5,000 feet — nearly a mile! — of additional living shoreline along both Bird and Sunken Islands, bringing the total area of protected coastline to over 6,000 linear feet. Set in 500-foot sections separated by 12-foot gaps for marine animal access, the breakwater allows water to flow through to the shallow, quiet water lagoon.
Now complete, the living shoreline protects the Brown Pelicans and 14 other species, providing additional nesting habitat not only for the birds translocated after the Deepwater Horizon spill, but also for future generations born here.
Coastal Stewardship Answers Critical Questions
Collette Lauzau, Audubon Florida Shorebird Biologist, checks over her bright orange and yellow kayak one more time before slipping into the seat and nosing out of the Lanark Village Harbor. Smack in the middle of the Forgotten Coast, she sets her sights on a barrier island about a half-mile from shore and one of the most important bird breeding sites in the region: Lanark Reef Critical Wildlife Area.
Calmer waters prevail in the summer months, and the flats sit beneath a layer of shallow water. Lauzau spies young stingrays and small sharks as she paddles, keeping her eyes out for green sea turtles amidst the waving seagrasses. Once a week, she makes the 20-minute journey to the island, spending half a day counting sea and shorebirds.
“The most abundant bird nesting here is the Laughing Gull, but there are also hundreds of nesting Brown Pelicans,” Lauzau explains, “American Oystercatchers and Willets use the area, as do wading birds like Great Egrets and Tricolored Herons. My personal favorites are the Black Skimmers and the Gull-billed Terns. The Gull-billed Terns have so much attitude - they always make me laugh!”
Almost ten years before, panicked locals watched the same horizon line, shielding their eyes from the April sunshine and imagining the raft of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster headed their way. With so much gushing from the underground leak, the brown slick had already covered the Louisiana coastline, and was now making slow but steady progress towards Florida. How, and when, it would arrive remained anyone’s guess.
As crews worked frantically to plug the spill and contain the spewing oil, specialized ships skimmed as much as possible from the surface. This oil remained usable, a commodity that BP sold back to the market. The company devoted all the proceeds from these recovered oil sales to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, jumpstarting the wildlife recovery work that has continued for a decade.
In early 2011, Audubon received a call from the fund’s administrators.
Birds had already been devastated by the oil spill. While some lucky birds recovered from oil-drenched feathers, others faced disturbance on the nesting beaches that remained, and scores of additional birds struggled to find sustenance in the wake of the disaster that effectively sealed their food supply in gunk. The grants from the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife were available now to start mitigating the blows to wildlife. Audubon Florida’s Executive Director Julie Wraithmell, then the Director of Wildlife Conservation, had just the project.
Lanark Reef stretches for six miles along the Gulf coast, partially submerged and partially made up of barrier islands and sand bars. Because the State of Florida conveyed the islands into private ownership in the 1950s, the precious 3-acre upland beach nesting habitat remained vulnerable to development. In fact, one such owner was determined to develop the last parcel on the island into condos — all but guaranteeing elimination of sea and shorebirds nesting there.
With a grant from the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, Audubon stepped in, purchasing the three acres of upland for $50,000 in 2012 and assigning staff and volunteers to monitor the species that used the island. Together with the adjacent Dog Island, Audubon gained a Globally Important Bird Area (IBA) designation.