Bird Steward's Perspective

My First Season as a St. Pete Audubon Anchor Bird Steward

by Troy Koser

Imagine this: it is your second day back home from college and you’re on your way out to Fort de Soto’s beautiful North Beach to start your first day as an Anchor Bird Steward. Excited, nervous, and a little naïve about what the day has in store for you, you walk towards the beach to see what could only be the largest crowd of beach goers in the history of all time. Extending all the way north, as far as you can see, the only break in the crowd comes at its southern extent where it hits a rope-fence line where a blue tent stands with a couple chairs and a sign reading “Ask Me About the Birds”.

Throughout the day, you undertake a ‘crash course’ in shorebird identification and conservation from one of the most intelligent people you’ve ever met. Periodically I talked to beach goers about the nearby sanctuary and prevented public entry into the area. With no less than five incidents that first Friday, Memorial Day weekend was obviously a poor starting weekend for a St. Pete Audubon Anchor Bird Steward.

Troy describes the importance of coastal habitat to a visitor-S. Janes

After a rocky start, I began to enter my own as Fort de Soto’s Anchor Bird Steward as I built up my knowledge base about shorebird identification and coastal ecology with the aid of my ever-vigilant mentor and some very helpful veteran volunteers. Slowly but surely I was beginning to tell the difference between the Short-Billed Dowitchers and the Willets or between the Semipalmated Plovers and the Wilson’s Plovers, enough so that I didn’t need to look up every bird I saw on my species surveys with an ID guide. I started to see which birds were displaying nesting behavior and likely had a scrape hidden among the dune vegetation versus the birds who were simply visiting so that they could catch a break at the sandbar; an activity I related to the public quite often by comparing it to visiting a bar to relax after a long day at work. As I saw these birds care for and raise their young it became easier to passionately relate their plight to the public that came up to the Bird Steward Tent.

Public interaction while talking about the birds was the main role of my position as Anchor Bird Steward and the most rewarding educational experience I’ve ever had professionally. I met professional bird watchers, interested local families, shark-enthusiasts, people phobic about sharks, sea turtle fans, birders from Colombia, and all manner of tourists. Nearly every single one had an interesting story to tell. I could count the number of negative public interactions with people approaching our tent during this season on one hand. Once a person even offered to arm the Bird Stewards with stun guns (which we politely declined, of course)! On top of the public interactions, I met a hugely diverse and supportive group of dedicated volunteers who came out and donated their time and expertise to the Bird Steward Project and without whom we could not hope to accomplish as much as we did this season.

Life on the beach

Troy helps reset a post at a colony of Black Skimmers - Anne Jeff Ruben

Roughly halfway through the nesting season there was a massive call to gather Bird Stewards at Indian Shores to help manage a 500 strong Black Skimmer colony on the Fourth of July so that the young hatchlings and fledglings wouldn’t be frightened by the fireworks and escape along the shore and be lost during the night. Through the course of that night, I truly felt the bond of a family of volunteers passionate about not only protecting shorebirds but about supporting their community. On that night, it was made abundantly clear to me that being a Bird Steward isn’t only about being knowledgeable about shorebirds and explaining why they deserve to have nesting and resting sanctuaries. A Bird Steward talks to anybody willing to listen about anything under the sun, whether it be about nature or maybe a good place to eat along the beach. This engagement, although it may seem frivolous at times, connects the public to the perspective of the Bird Steward through the dimension of shared experiences. No longer is this person simply a ‘birder’ and what they say only applicable to their specific world revolving around the birds. Now this person is a familiar face, someone like yourself that can help you to realize that this protected area for resting and nesting shorebirds is not only, in fact, of terrific ecological benefit for the environment but also a useful outdoor classroom opportunity for the human community as well.

So here’s to my fellow Bird Steward out there! Continue your work to educate the public, protect our environmental sanctuaries, and support our communities. And one final word of advice: never stop perspective-taking. Even when people seem belligerent, bent on breaking the law, or just plain mean, put yourself in their shoes. If I’ve learned anything this summer it is that people will never cease to surprise and fascinate you if you give them a chance.

Header Photo - L. Witt-Packard