Spa Beach/Art Installation

From Dan Savercool, President, St. Petersburg Audubon Society

Over the past several weeks most of us have been following the advances in the planning, design, and construction of the St. Petersburg Pier. A couple of weeks ago I received a voicemail and an email from members of the Save Spa Beach Park group voicing their concern over the proposed land use changes to Spa Beach Park and the impacts by the proposed Echelman sculpture to birds. The voicemail stated that it was crucial that someone from St. Petersburg Audubon Society return their call to discuss these issues. I returned the email by stating that based upon what I read in the newspaper, I was under the impression the City Council voted to deny locating the sculpture on Spa Beach Park. I continued to state that it was good news as that location on Spa Beach Park out in the open would pose a danger to birds moving between Weedon Island Preserve to the Point Pinellas Park to the south. I stated that although the artwork was an impressive piece, it was proposed for a bad location and fortunately, City Council agreed. Unbeknownst to me, the City Council recommended that city staff look at alternative locations for the sculpture in the pier area and to present a new location at a subsequent City Council meeting. Regardless, my comments to the emailer was in relation to the location proposed at the time for Spa Beach Park.

After I sent my original email to the Save Spa Beach Park representative on 14 July and in the days leading up to the City Council meeting of 2 August I heard the sculpture was going to be discussed in its entirety (including a proposed new location), then I heard the location would not be discussed, and then the day before the meeting I was notified that both location and contract with the artist would be discussed and voted on at the meeting. It wasn’t until after I sent my email response on 14 July that I learned the new location proposed for the sculpture was going to be over the area that is currently a parking lot immediately east of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

In regard to the voicemail, I returned the call and spent the better part of an hour listening to concerns that the city was planning to change the land use designation of Spa Beach Park from a Passive park to an Active park and also the concerns around the proposed Echelman sculpture. At the end of the call, I promised that I would research the issue about the land use changes, but I would also contact someone at the City to ask the reasoning behind changing all the passive parks to an active park designation. I also promised to provide any information I learned from my research with the caller. After speaking with city staff, conducting my own research of existing information, talking with some of the avifauna experts already involved in the pier and sculpture project, and using my professional experience related to impacts to avifauna by obstructions, I emailed the Save Spa Beach representative with information about federal and state protected birds that might fly by the pier, history of the old pier and Spa Beach Park (the entire area was fill placed in open waters in the early 1900’s), and the definitions of Passive and Active parks from City Code, Section 21-78.

During my discussion with city staff I mentioned the concern with light attracting birds during periods of low visibility and that is the main concern with obstruction-related mortality to birds. I was in the process of preparing a briefing for my public input to the City Council, when the city contacted me and asked if I would be willing to meet with the Mayor to discuss the avifauna issues and some potential offsetting actions to reduce the impacts upon birds. On 1 August I was able to meet with the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Director of Leisure Services, City Architect, and the St. Petersburg Pier Project Manager to discuss the science. The meeting went quite well – everyone listened to each other, allowed anyone to respond, and we listened to the responses. I stated that any obstruction to flight, included the sculpture, is a potential impact to birds. However, based upon research conducted over many years for communication towers, cellular telephone towers, and wind generation towers, there are design and operational actions that can be taken to reduce that impact on the birds. But, the bottom line was that the impact can never be eliminated as long as there are obstructions to flying. In the end, it was the collective belief that the points raised were valid and should be presented to the City Council. I was asked to present the information along with city staff instead of providing abbreviated comments during the 3 minutes allotted to the public for comment. Following is what I presented to the Mayor’s team and the City Council.

“My name is Dan Savercool and I am speaking on behalf of St. Petersburg Audubon Society where I am the President of the organization. I am also an environmental consultant with over 34 years’ experience, over 20 in the Tampa Bay Region. I am a Certified Senior Ecologist with the Ecological Society of America. My area of expertise is habitat management, and I have completed projects within this area of expertise in all 50 states and six territories. Within the Tampa Bay Region, my experience also extends to land use planning and comprehensive planning in most cities and all counties within the region. Of particular note, I have over 15 years’ experience conducting impact analyses for communication tower, navigational tower, and overhead transmission line siting throughout the nation, with particular focus on impacts to avifauna populations by these structures.

We need to give birds more credit for their flying and navigation skills. On a daily basis, songbirds fly through tree canopies, dodging the myriad of tree branches. Seabirds navigate open waters, occasionally coming inland through working waterfronts to roost and nest on dry land. And shorebirds fly along the shorelines towards the next mangrove, where they precisely land on just the right branch. In clear weather, they will see an illuminated sculpture and are capable of making a cognizant decision to avoid collision or perhaps land upon it for a rest. It is not the sculpture as a structure we should be concerned about, it is the illumination of the sculpture that is important as it relates to avian mortality.

Attraction to light at night leads to avian mortality at buildings, monuments, cooling towers, bridges, offshore platforms, ships, lighthouses, and wind turbines; and neotropical migrants are especially susceptible as are habitat-centric birds such as shorebirds, migrating along shorelines from roosting at areas such as Weedon Island Preserve to foraging habitats such as the significant seagrass beds off Lassing Park. During periods of clear weather and navigable winds, birds are able to detect and avoid collision with structures. Structure-induced avian mortality is associated with periods of low visibility when the bird’s ability to navigate effectively is hampered by low fog or wind-driven rain.

Research suggests that structure mortality occurs mostly during seasonal migration when bird numbers and flock density are greatest, and mortality cannot be connected to local populations. We have heard the argument that since no dead birds are found near a structure that collision-induced bird mortality does not exist. This is due to the fact that the data are the result of carcass searches in the morning, after nighttime scavengers such a fox, raccoons, dogs, cats, or rats have already been through the location. There are numerous studies published regarding how scavengers remove killed birds around structures that the birds collided with, and those killed birds escape detection by surveyors. However, during migration large numbers of birds are killed during isolated events overwhelming the ability of the scavengers to eat the evidence. During non-migration times, few numbers of birds are killed and are removed by scavengers, thereby removing the evidence.

Reduction in lighting intensity benefits species in the vicinity of lighting and also reduces the reflection of light in the atmosphere. The glow of lighted areas can be reduced, decreasing impacts to natural systems and park visitor experience.

Best practices can be followed in the design and operation of the lighted sculpture that will reduce the interaction between birds and the sculpture. They are as follows.

◦Remove steady burning red lights, leaving only flashing (not slow pulsing) red, red strobe, or white strobe lights. This is consistent with USFWS recommendations and FAA requirements.

◦Avoid floodlights and other light sources emanating from bases of towers illuminating the structure. Security lighting for on-ground facilities should be down-shielded to reduce nighttime bird attraction. Red or green security light colors are preferred over other colors.

◦Avoid lights that have ultraviolet or blue light (shorter wavelengths) and in general use lights with red and yellow hues. Since LEDs (except full-spectrum LEDs) have no ultraviolet emissions, use of narrow spectrum LED lighting is preferable.

◦When fog drops down to the top of the highest point of the sculpture between dusk and dawn, lights (except security lights) should be turned off to detract birds from approaching the sculpture. Similarly, when horizontal visibility drops to 100' and below, lights (except security lights) should be turned off to detract birds from approaching the sculpture. There are commercially available automated programmable switches designed to de-energize the sculpture when visibility drops below a pre-determined threshold and wind speeds exceed a pre-determined threshold.”

Over the past week we have received a fair amount of criticism for our “support” to the sculpture, but you have just read my accounting of what was discussed, and you are certainly welcome to corroborate this statement with the public record of the 2 August City Council meeting. To date, we have not supported anything other than looking at the research/data, openly communicating with all parties, and based upon those data discussing options that can be undertaken to reduce the impacts associated with the placement and operation of the sculpture.

In addition to the obstruction related impacts, and after talking with Dr. Beth Forys from Eckerd College about this issue, we realized we should also be concerned with entanglement by hooked birds (birds that have fishing hooks and trailing fishing line) in the sculpture. Similar to the obstruction issue, we also discussed this with city staff and leadership, and other scientists in the Tampa Bay Region. It should be made clear that this is a concern that is bigger than the sculpture, as on a daily basis we see hooked birds entangled in mangrove limbs, power lines, oyster reefs, and anything else the fishing line might wrap around when the birds are just being birds – flying, walking, and swimming around.

Having known Peter Clark since before either of us had any gray hair and realizing that Tampa Bay Watch is planning an environmental education center on the pier, I reached out to Peter to see if St. Petersburg Audubon could assist Bay Watch with providing educational materials to the public about how to avoid hooking birds while fishing and what to do if a hooked bird is found. While the planning and design of those details for the pier and education center are a way off, we both agreed to work together to make sure the birds have a voice and someone to help them.

As with all advocacy and education initiatives, we will continue to communicate openly, respectfully, and present science-based recommendations to our elected officials, regulatory personnel, and any other person who is interested in protecting and restoring the native ecosystems important to birds and other wildlife.