by Ron Smith
Shell Key has long been known as the party island for south Pinellas recreational boaters. In the late 1990s St. Pete Audubon was instrumental in having laws passed that banned alcohol, pets and overnight camping without a permit. By the year 2000 there were more than 20,000 Laughing Gulls nesting on the island. Shortly thereafter, mangrove encroachment and tropical storms reshaped the island and the birds moved to Egmont Key and other locations for nesting.
Photo by Ron Smith
However, the island is still an important migration stopover point and wintering site for numerous shorebirds and a wintering site for Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows. Regular bird surveys of this island have been ongoing since 1992. With 20 years of data available certain trends come to light.
One of the most interesting trends, and one that has been noted across North America, is the major decline of Red Knots, a species that nests on the tundra from Greenland to northeast Canada and winters from the southern United States to southern South America, mainly Argentina. There are several populations that breed in Europe, too. The late Paul Blair, whose regular surveys were instrumental in protecting Shell Key, once photographed a flock of 5000 Red Knots on 17 Sep 1993. The following year the flock was estimated at 4000 on 22 Sep 1994. These days the numbers are much lower.
Consider these numbers of Red Knots seen at Shell Key on previous Septembers: 2009 = 690; 2010 = 380; and 2011 = 220. Just recently, on 11 Aug 2012, 189 knots were at Shell Key. The island will be surveyed again in mid-September and as a fair comparison.
Birders can assist with the tracking of Red Knots by checking them closely for lime-green bands on their legs. These bands, or flags you might say, have large imprinted codes on them. Most are marked with three digits or letters. By recording the bird’s flag number (more easily done with a scope, but binoculars can get you close enough, too) and reporting them to bandedbirds.org you can help biologists track these birds and figure out exactly what areas and stopover sites need the most attention and protection.
Red Knot # U6M, shown here, was photographed at Shell Key in August of 2011. It was originally captured and banded at Indian Shores 27 Feb 2009. Since its original capture it has been reported by observers 16 times along the Gulf coast of Florida, including at Caladesi Island this past July. Interestingly, it has never been reported anywhere in the U.S. or elsewhere from April thru mid-July. So, it would seem, U6M is getting past everyone further north on its way to its breeding grounds. Where is it stopping? Or does it fly non-stop from Florida to its summer home? If so, sites like Shell Key are even more important as refueling sites for this soon to be “federally-listed” species.
Only accessible by boat, Shell Key Preserve is a 1755-acre preserve located immediately west of Tierra Verde in southern Pinellas County. It protects sensitive marine habitats and includes one of the county's largest undeveloped barrier islands (Shell Key) as well as numerous mangrove islands and expansive sea grass beds. Shell Key has been designated as one of the state's most important areas for shorebird nesting and wintering and it serves as an important study area for these species. It also is an important area for recreation. A balance for both uses was established by restricting public use to the northern and southern ends of the island. A central core area for conservation is closed to the public.
Starting in the early 90s, St. Petersburg Audubon Society began a quest to protect Shell Key's beach nesting bird population. In 1992 eighty signs were posted to educate visitors and ensure the beach nesting birds could raise their young undisturbed.
In 1999, with the assistance of St. Petersburg Audubon, Tampa Baywatch and other environmental and governmental units, Pinellas County began creating a management plan for Shell Key and the surrounding waters.
The plan was adopted in March 2000, and the Shell Key Preserve was born.
Shell Key is only accessible by boat or a private ferry, Shell Key Shuttle from Pass-a-Grille, and no motorized vehicles are allowed anywhere on the island. Approximately 65 acres within the north-central portion of Shell Key has been set-aside as a Bird Preservation Area for nesting shorebirds, and public access is prohibited within this area. Although the State of Florida owns Shell Key Preserve, Pinellas County manages the preserve as well as the submerged lands. Ponnoma Island, however, is privately owned.
Visit Shell Key Preserve for more information.