MANATEE -- When it comes to a sliver of island real estate in Terra Ceia Bay, it seems the market has gone to the birds.
Audubon of Florida purchased Manatee County seabird sanctuary Little Bird Key for $6,200 on July 30, and Audubon Florida is now fundraising to replenish its reserves. The environmental protection group rarely buys land, according to Mark Rachal, sanctuary manager, but in this case felt it was important, as they've been watching the island for 15 years.
The 1.5-acre mangrove-covered island sold as part of the estate of the late Bradenton attorney James Wallace, according to county property records.
Although Audubon employees have monitored the
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bird population on the island with the permission of the former owner, the organization took the rare step of buying property to make sure those birds have a home forever. Charles Lee, director of advocacy for the Florida Audubon Society, said that even though Audubon has no budget for land purchases, it made the buy to block development of the unsettled wildlife preserve.
"Someone with the right engineer and the right lobbyist could have gotten something there," he said.
Also known as Shiver Island, Little Bird Key is home to populations of nesting herons, egrets, spoonbills and wood storks. Hundreds of birds from 14 identified species inhabit the island throughout the year.
To be posted: No people on key
With the change in ownership, Audubon will not only monitor and patrol the island, but will post signs that prohibit people from landing there or harassing birds. Lee said bird watchers are welcome to approach the island to observe or photograph the birds, but they may not make contact with the land or the mangroves growing at the shore.
The island is most visible from the Tropic Isles mobile home co-op and the co-op's marina, located a few hundred yards to the east on shoreline opposite Snead Island. Lee said Audubon will likely do some sort of public education campaign or event involving nearby residents.
"We wanted to keep it as a sanctuary. If it was bought for private use, there would've been a chance of human interaction or even development on the island," Rachal said. "Development wouldn't have been easy, but it's not impossible, as we've seen in Manatee County."
Tropic Isles, Lee said, benefits from having the island remain covered in mangroves. The island and its vegetation act as a weather break in the event of storm surge. No mangroves exist along the shore of the housing development. Tropic Isles management did not respond to a request to comment on the sale.
Lee said that Audubon will likely arrange a few boat trips in the near future that will give organization benefactors and members of the public a close, offshore look at Audubon's new property. Audubon will undertake a fundraising campaign to recoup the money it spent to buy the island. With closing costs, the purchase totaled $6,200.
The $6,200 is a significant portion of the group's reserve funds, Rachal said, and they're welcoming any donations to replenish that fund and provide for management expenses. As part of the 2015 Giving Challenge, Mosaic has designated $2,500 in matching grants for Audubon to help pay for the island purchase and its upkeep.
"For the most part it isn't an island that requires a lot of upkeep, and fortunately a lot of the surrounding residents help take care of the island," Rachal said. "But we'll still be conducting patrols and taking a census during nesting seasons."
Rachal said it is rare for the group to purchase land, as they usually enter into agreements or partnerships over land protections or have it donated. But Little Bird Key houses one of the largest bird colonies in the Tampa Bay area, despite its small size.
"We moved forward after getting approval by our board of directors for the purchase of the island by FAS. We did not have this in our budget, but moving fast to save this rookery island was considered essential," said Audubon State Director Eric Draper. "We are now going to ask everyone who cares about the birds in Tampa Bay to help us cover the expenses."
In Palmetto, Audubon owns 4 acres on Third Avenue North, a block north of the Manatee River. It also owns a quarter-acre of mangrove lands along the Intracoastal Waterway side of Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island.
Little Bird Key is one of a number of Tampa Bay area islands that host Audubon-monitored bird populations. They include Audubon's own Washburn Sanctuary in Terra Ceia Bay and the 60-acre Manbirtee Key at Port Manatee.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.