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April 21, 2017

If you’ve been to Cedar Key recently, chances are you’ve seen them.  Whether you’re fishing at the Big Dock, walking down G Street in search of the perfect sunset, or trolling Dock Street for the best deal on a clam dinner, you will encounter significant signage: “Do Not Feed the Birds,” “Prevent seabird Entanglement ,” “Hooked a Bird? Don’t Cut the line,” and “Injured Bird? Contact one of the volunteers for assistance.”  The signs are a relatively new feature of the Cedar Key fishing and birding community and are an attempt to address an old and familiar (to any who have fished off the main pier regularly) problem: sea birds (mainly pelicans) getting entangled in fishing lines. 

The original idea came from Doug Maple, bird authority and former owner of Captain’s Doug’s Tidewater Tours, who started his own informal bird rescue more than ten years ago.  “They were getting slaughtered down there,” Maple said, “and I was already down there with a boat.”  Doug and, a bit later, Florida biologist Tiffany Black began helping fishermen unhook distressed pelicans and, when necessary, transporting them to veterinary facilities who could provide medical expertise such as the University of Florida Vet School.  He then contacted the on site professional science community, led by the University of Florida IFAS, The Nature Coast Biological Station, and Sea Grant Florida. 


Using language from signage already in use in similar programs in the St. Petersburg/Tampa area, Doug and his new rescue activists first mounted signs exhorting visitors to avoid feeding wild birds, cast their lines away from birds, and, most importantly, to properly discard used monofilament line, which has caused thousands of tragic wildlife entanglements throughout the decades. A second series of signs laid out specific instructions for dealing with a hooked bird.  These began with the vital heading “Don’t Cut the line” followed by the five simple steps to a successful rescue, including reeling in the hooked bird slowly, using hoop nets (when available) to secure the bird, cutting the barb off the hook and then backing it out of the injured party, and releasing the bird back into the wild only if it appeared to be healthy.          

Once the signage was secure, the next step was an organized approach to bird rescue, a specific system to better serve the area.  The main impetus behind this movement came from Dr. Savanna Barry, a Regional Specialized Sea Grant Agent and a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Florida.  Barry organized the first training session in July of 2015, which she instructed with Homosassa Springs wildlife rescue guru Mary Opall.  “Once we had at least three names and numbers of people willing to respond, we could put them up on the signs,” Barry explained, and the program was off the ground.  A follow-up training session in January of 2017 garnered more volunteers, now numbering twenty eight.  Trainees learned how to approach and secure an injured bird, using equipment made available at the Nature Coast Biological Station- gloves, nets, wire cutters, and cages.  Once the bird was in a carrier, it could be transported to a medical facility, usually to Mary Opall’s Nature Wildlife Rescue Center, an all- volunteer operation in Homosassa Springs.           

         So far all those signs mentioned above seem to be working.  A study by University of Florida interns conducted at a number of fishing piers in the area show that almost 30% of fishermen respond favorably to the signs, and numerous birds have been un-entangled by fishermen following the instructions.  Since December, there have been 36 calls to the rescue hotline.  Of those, 31 birds were located and a rescue attempted.  Of those, 7 birds were successfully transported to rehabilitation centers, while 5 were freed from the constricting fishing tackle and released on site.  Barry stresses during the training sessions that, even though all bird deaths are sad, not all rescues will be successful; in fact, any numbers approaching 40-45% would be considered a victory.  “Remember” Barry stresses, “the success rate is zero if we’re not here attempting to help.”  So crunching the above numbers puts the Cedar Key Bird Rescue success rate at 38%- not bad for a neophyte program just working out the kinks.        

While over 90% of the rescues involve pelicans, there have been other birds who needed assistance, including a frigate bird, two buffle head ducks, a loon, two laughing gulls, and two ospreys.  One osprey rescue in particular is worth relating.

On Saturday, April 8th during the annual Cedar Key Spring Arts Festival, a kayaker reported seeing an injured osprey out at Atsena Otie, the nearest island off the mainland.  Doug Maple secured a boat and another volunteer and headed out to the site.  Although the injured bird had been sighted in thick underbrush inland from the old pier, the kayaker had texted a picture of where he had last seen the osprey.  With this information, Doug was able to locate the injured bird, and, using a net and a towel, secure the bird, load her into a carrier, and transport her back to the mainland.  The osprey was then driven to Mary Opall’s facility in Homosassa Springs, rehabbed, and is awaiting release.  As a side note, it is preferable to release the birds in the same area where they were rescued.  Since we are in the midst of osprey nesting, and since this osprey no doubt has a mate, it will be vital to bring the bird back to Atsena Otie, where it will hopefully reunite with its mate.      

 The Cedar Key Bird Rescue program plans to continue growing; more trained volunteers and more people heeding the signs posted at all popular fishing locations will be a step forward.  But perhaps the most crucial new piece of equipment would be a boat.  When a call comes in, if the bird in question is an entangled pelican off the main fishing pier on Dock Street in Cedar Key (as it often is), it is extremely difficult to secure the uncooperative bird with just a hoop net.  Sometimes Doug Maple has his boat at the marina, and sometimes a fisherman already in the water will offer assistance, but too often the bird disappears before rescuers can find a way to approach it safely.  More training sessions are planned for the coming year, and the signage now covers most areas where a rescue may be required.  But a small but dependable boat, moored at the local marina, might just raise the success rate over the desired 50%.        

So by all means visit Cedar Key, eat locally grown clams and oysters at the fine seafood restaurants, gather along G street to watch the incredible sunsets, and fish to your heart’s content. But please be aware that you are sharing this water with an amazing array of waterfowl.  Please read the signs for information on safer fishing practices, use the listed phone numbers if you see a bird in distress, and. . . if you happen to know a good boat for sale cheap, you know whom to call.         

Copyright Crosby Hunt ©  April 21, 2017