vanguard of the volunteer
From her home in Largo, Florida, Joyce King recalls first setting foot on nearby Shell Key to count birds a decade ago, when she was president of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society. Long-legged wading species plied the barrier island's seagrass beds, and its wide, sandy beaches bustled with colonies of shorebirds.
Still, all was not well in this birdwatcher's paradise. As one of the rare undeveloped spots on Florida's Gulf Coast, the key--just a 10-minute boat ride from the crowded peninsula occupied by St. Petersburg and 22 other booming municipalities--was being overrun with boaters and day-trippers.
The island provides stopover, wintering, and breeding habitat for more than 100 bird species, including piping plovers, black skimmers, and American oystercatchers. "Birds were literally forced to nest at the feet of beachgoers," says King, an elementary-school counselor who now sits on the board of Audubon of Florida.
Not long after her visit, the St. Petersburg chapter--which had never before adopted its own conservation projects or goals--began a program to protect the most vulnerable species. Members roped off nesting areas, posted signs advising people not to intrude, and monitored populations. Eventually, the group asked the county to step in and safeguard the fragile ecosystem. "It was too big for a bunch of volunteers," says King.
By 1998 the chapter's efforts had paid off. Pinellas County started acquiring private holdings on the key. More important, the county designated the area as Shell Key Preserve, which encompasses 1,755 acres and includes not only the eponymous barrier island but also adjoining mangrove islands, seagrass beds, salt marshes, and mudflats.
"None of this could have happened without King's involvement," says Rich Paul, manager of the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries for Audubon of Florida.
Her commitment to conserving her area's unique natural heritage and educating its citizens about it spawned numerous partnerships between the state, the county, and local conservation groups and businesses. "Joyce started to put into place what ultimately became the county's role in protecting Shell Key," says Craig Huegel, a biologist with the Pinellas County Department of Environmental Management. "She doesn't give up easily."
King, who is modest about her role in saving Shell Key, chalks it all up to building a culture of conservation within her own chapter. As a result, beachcombers and birds can now coexist.
coping with tragedy
Audubon Spring Creek Prairie
"We had our prairie festival at Spring Creek Prairie the Sunday after the disaster," says Marian Langan, education director. "We struggled with what to do and came up with something that worked perfectly for us. Raptor Recovery Nebraska was releasing a rehabbed red-tailed hawk as part of the program. Betsy Finch, the program's director, said some really moving words along the lines of, 'Just as healing hands have mended this bird, healing hands will mend our country.' She started crying as she was talking, which was incredibly moving, because she was saying goodbye to the bird as well. When she did the release, people in the audience were crying openly. It was one of the most powerful things I've experienced. The bird was spectacular.
"We also had a table set up with a blown-up version of Wendell Berry's incredible 'Peace of Wild Things' poem and a vase of goldenrod and sunflowers from our prairie. The goldenrod was perfect to represent the seriousness of the message, but the sunflowers added a note of hope. It was a small gesture, but one to which people really responded."
"At the Sharon Audubon Center, we temporarily waived our trail fee," says Scott Heth, director. "We feel strongly that in this sad and uncertain time, people need to get out and immerse themselves in beautiful and natural places, both individually and with their friends and family, to experience the peace that nature has to offer. The Audubon center is one of many such places here in the northwest corner of Connecticut, and so we have been giving people suggestions of other places to go as well."
Audubon Center for Birds of
Resee Collins, director of Audubon of Florida's Center for Birds of Prey, and Lynda White, the center's eagle-watch coordinator, helped stir patriotic sentiments when they escorted Trouble, one of the center's resident bald eagles, to a ceremony at Orlando's Florida Hospital. Local firefighters displayed an American flag during the ceremony, which was held to honor the efforts of their fellow firefighters and local doctors, emergency workers, and National Guard employees. In addition, Trouble starred in the Pennies for Hope fund-raiser, during which 400 elementary-school children filled firefighters' boots with change, raising more than $33,000 for the relief effort. In one particularly touching moment, Trouble stretched and flapped his wings while a local second-grade class sang "God Bless America."
"Having the eagle there added another dimension to the ceremonies, and we were honored to do it," says Collins. "Although this doesn't generate funds for Audubon, it is recognizing the spirit of patriotism resurging nationwide, and it is generating goodwill within the community, helping us all to heal."
Audubon Center and Farm
On the last weekend in September, more than 7,000 people were on hand to celebrate the fall harvest at the Aullwood Audubon Center's annual Apple Fest. Families were able to take a step back from world events to savor the simple pleasures of apple butter simmering in copper kettles, pies baking in Dutch ovens, apples being pressed into cider, and rides in wagons being pulled by draft horses. Even "Johnny Appleseed" made an appearance, distributing six bushels of apples to children, who later constructed 900 scarecrows from a harvest's worth of straw.
"We feel it is important to continue with all of our special events, to give families an opportunity to enjoy and find peace in nature," says Charity Krueger, executive director. "We noticed during the week of the attack that many people just came and walked the trails or sat quietly and watched nature in the Window on Wildlife Room."
Center in Greenwich
Much to the appreciation of 1,500 attendees, the Audubon Society of Greenwich did not let the events of September 11 stand in the way of its Annual Hawkwatch Festival, which was held the weekend following the attacks. A record crowd came out to admire the migrating birds of prey from atop Quaker Ridge, one of the loftiest points in southeast Connecticut.
Since Greenwich is a commuter town for New York City, and it lost many residents to the tragedy, center officials considered canceling the event, says Marilyn Smith, center manager. "The consensus was that we should go forward with it, and the results were terrific. Attendance was three times the previous high, and many visitors went out of their way to thank us for going ahead with the festival. Parents and grandparents were thankful about having something positive to do with their children. We posted a sign with the following sentiment: 'The Audubon family offers its prayers and deepest sympathies to everyone affected by the unprecedented tragedy of this week. Our sanctuary is a refuge for both wildlife and people, and we welcome all who seek a peaceful place for reflection and renewal.'"
Beidler Forest Sanctuary
During the weeks after the tragedy, Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest Sanctuary waived its entrance fee and extended its hours, encouraging visitors to connect with nature in the 11,000 acres that protect a virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest. On September 28, under the light of a full moon, a dozen people hiked into the heart of the woods for a candlelight ceremony under the "meeting tree," a 1,000-year-old bald cypress. As they lit candles and shared a moment of silence for the victims, pileated woodpeckers flew overhead, and a serenade of owls and frogs echoed throughout the canopy.
"We all feel nature has incredible healing power, and allows you to free your mind and heart of heavy burdens," says Ann Shahid, education director. "In nature there are no political boundaries or religious sects. We're all one people and are each connected to the earth. Our hearts and prayers are with each one who was affected by this disaster."
© 2002 NASI
Sound off! Send a letter to
Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print