Birds, nudists edge for space on Passage Key

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of the birds at the wildlife refuge.

Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.

Mostly nude boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.
Boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.

The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than four acres in size where the National Wildlife Refuge, Passage Key was designated previously existed.

It had eroded and disappeared almost seven years ago.

“When Passage Key first started reemerging a few months ago, we were under the impression that it would vanish in weeks, like it had been in the previous 7 years. To everyone’s surprise, the sand has been continually accumulating, rising at several feet above the high-water mark,” said Stan Garner, FWS supervisory law enforcement officer, in the June release.

Officials also reported a high number of nesting colonies of least terns and loafing colonies of royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, pelicans, oystercatchers and other shorebirds, amidst hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.

However, the hundreds of visitors to the once submerged wildlife refuge are mostly nudists.

“The island has gotten overwhelming attention from the nudist community,” said Ivan Vicente, FWS visitors services specialist. “The thing is, the island came back up, so the nudist community tripled in the last four months and they claimed it as their nudist island.”

Extra markers were placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, notifying visitors the area is a federally protected wildlife refuge.

Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.
Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.

Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat, and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on land. The new markers allow people to stand in the shallow water around the island, while keeping them far enough away so as to not disturb the birds.

“Ever since it was established as a refuge, it was never allowed for people to be on it. We are reinstituting normal regulations. Now, even in high tide, part of the island is exposed. We don’t care about excluding people, we care about preserving the wildlife,” Vicente said.

Passage Key also is the site of a dispute that led to a suspicious death that is being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Vicente said a helicopter landed on Passage Key July 13 in an attempt to locate Pamela Carter Doster, who later died July 16 in at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, however Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.

Passage Key was the second established national wildlife refuge in 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt. The preserve is particularly important for nesting colonies of native seabirds and wading birds.

Passage Key also was the first refuge to be a federally designated Wilderness Area, in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.

Passage Key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The storms eroded away significant portions of the island. The refuge went completely underwater following the presence of hurricane Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.

“No one expected it. It’s almost like the hand of God dumped sand on the shoal,” said Vicente.

Officials have stepped up enforcement to keep people off the land, however Vicente said there isn’t constant enforcement.

Passage Key is jointly patrolled by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We don’t a have a problem with nudity out there, as long as it’s not happening on land. We manage animals first and then people,” he said.

This article was originally published in The Islander August 13, 2014.

Wildlife Inc. faces funding woes

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – The home on Avenue B in Bradenton Beach looks like any other on the street. The exception is the large tortoises milling around the fenced front yard, the colorful parrots calling “Hello” along the side yard, and the cages stacked upon cages filled with various wildlife in the backyard.

Wildlife Inc., an education and rehabilitation center for wildlife, calls Bradenton Beach home in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood.

Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.
Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.

Amid the screeching of birds, Gail Straight co-owner of the rehab with husband Ed Straight, a Bradenton Beach commissioner, said the organization is now facing a new financial obstacle.

“We’re trying to find a sponsor. They’re discontinuing the blood drive on the island,” said Straight. “For us it’s a matter of life and death if we can’t find out where the money is going to come from.”

The annual island blood drive was a saving grace for Wildlife Inc., and benefitted three other island charities: Anna Maria Island Privateers, Anna Maria Island Community Center and the volunteer West Manatee Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.

Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated
Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated

During the island blood drive, donors chose one or shared $100, given by an anonymous donor among the four charities.

Straight said the blood drive was Wildlife Inc.’s single biggest fundraiser, providing on average $10,000 in the weekend-long event.

Other sources of income for Wildlife Inc., include donations collected at festivals, payments for shows and two small local grants. Straight said the nonprofit also receives a small amount of personal donations.

Wildlife Inc. brings shows into Manatee and Sarasota county schools, organized by education director David Sadkin, but Straight said the fee for educational programs in schools is low to make it more affordable for the school.

“If you apply for 100 grants, you might get one. That’s why the blood donations were so important,” Straight said.

She said they learned in July the blood donation program was moving off the island.

A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.
A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.

Straight said Wildlife Inc. has been getting in more hawks and owls, birds of prey that are expensive to feed and has spent $10,000 this year on rats and chicks to feed those birds.

Wildlife Inc. rescues wildlife from all over Tampa Bay. The rehabilitation center has been in operation in Bradenton Beach for 28 years, and a second educational location, has operated for four years at Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton.

Wildlife Inc. employee Damen Hurd cares for the animals at the Mixon location and leads tours.

“This is really going to hit us hard. Hopefully the public will step up and help us out. It’s really sad. There’s not a lot people who will give donations to wildlife, but all kinds of people call for us to rescue them. We want to do it, but it’s hard to continue when you’re pouring your own money into it,” Hurd said.

A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.
A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.

The expansion to Mixon’s served several purposes. The space on the farm houses many animals that could not be released back into the wild due to permanent injuries another, and gives Wildlife Inc. a platform to educate the public about local wildlife.

The wildlife tours are integrated into Mixon’s tours of the citrus groves. Hurd said Mixon charges $10 for adults, and $5 for children to take the tour. For every adult 50 cents and a quarter from each child’s ticket goes to Wildlife Inc. And Mixon built some of the wildlife enclosures.

“The whole goal coming out here was to support the rehab. Now expenses have gone up and it’s just not sustainable. We’re really taking a hit,” said Hurd.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 13, 2014.

Wildlife Inc. races to save injured screech owl

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – Its feathers were matted with blood and a thin layer of tissue separated its small beating heart from exposure.

A harrowing two-day effort to save a badly injured screech owl produced thousands of social media responses offering well wishes, prayers and praise for the work of Wildlife Inc, even after its death.

A screech owl was badly injured by a tree trimmer, exposing its chest cavity. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Inc.
A screech owl was badly injured by a tree trimmer, exposing its chest cavity. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Inc.

The small eastern screech owl was rushed into Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach March 11. The owl had sustained a major injury to its chest after meeting with a chainsaw.

A tree trimmer accidentally sawed the bird’s chest wide open as he sawed through a log it was hiding in. The tree trimmer immediately rushed the owl to Wildlife Inc.

“The tree trimmers are really good about it, most of them are good people,” said Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc.

Wildlife Inc.’s Facebook post assured its audience the tree trimmers were animal lovers and the injury was accidental.

At Wildlife Inc., the Straights had a decision to make: whether try to save the owl, or put the animal down. Despite the injury to the chest, the owl appeared to be alert and active.

The bird went to the Island Animal Clinic the same day and Dr. Ashley Gardener performed surgery. The screech owl survived the surgery and the first night at Wildlife Inc.

“It looked like it was really going to do well. It’s such a bummer the little guy didn’t make it,” said Straight.

Wildlife Inc. announced around 2 p.m. March 11 to Facebook fans: “Unfortunately the little screech owl with the chest wound did not survive. We gave it a try and that’s all we can do. At least he died in a comfortable place on pain medication. I was really hoping he would pull through.”

However vigilant tree trimmers are, birds frequently come into Wildlife Inc. with similar injuries this time of year Straight said. This time of year is nesting season for many migratory birds. The screech owl is not a migratory bird.

To remove a nest of a migratory bird from a tree is illegal without a permit from the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is also illegal to kill migratory birds.

Screech owls are usually heard and not seen. The small species of owl have excellent camouflage, and hide in the nooks and crannies of trees in the day. Their sound is a trilling or whinny sound.

Screech owls can be found in urban or rural settings, wherever there are trees, particularly around water.

With patience and a sharp-eye, they may be sighted at the entrance of their tree-cavity home.

This article was originally published in The Islander March 19, 2014.