Seahorse Key, one of 13 small islands along the Gulf Coast of Florida that make up Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, has long been known as the largest bird colony in the area.
Yet the island’s rookery, closed to the public and considered a sanctuary for mangrove forest-dwelling birds, has gone mysteriously quiet.
Refuge staff is still looking into the causes behind the island’s sudden abandonment, which occurred seemingly overnight in late April. While many birds that previously nested on Seahorse Key have been found on surrounding islands, at least 7,000 white ibises remain unaccounted for – a species that has spent at least the last 20 summers on Seahorse Key.
Biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service have been able to rule out disease, contaminants and a wave of new predators as possible causes for the birds’ departure from Seahorse Key. With long-standing cooperation between Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge and several local universities, a lab facility on the refuge has focused its attention on looking into possible causes outside the habitat. Researchers looked into the possibility that the noise of low-flying aircraft may have disturbed the birds enough to leave the island, but finding no recent increase in local air traffic, they continue to seek other explanations.
“Whatever happened on Seahorse Key, we’re thankful that there are twelve other refuge islands nearby where these birds can re-settle,” said Peg Hall, who heads the communications team for the Friends of the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges. “The mystery of what will happen during next year’s nesting season is almost as interesting at this point as the question of what caused them to relocate in the first place.”
Unfortunately, the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges have been understaffed in recent years. In less than a decade, the refuges have lost no less than half of their 14 total full-time employees to retirement or other positions, and remaining staff has had to adapt accordingly.
Despite fewer hands available to work, the land of the refuge itself has proven as resilient as those who work it – while close to 25,000 birds have abandoned their nests on Seahorse Key, many herons, egrets, ibises and other species have re-settled on nearby Snake Key, which sports a similar habitat. Particularly interesting is the fact that very few birds have ever nested on Snake Key in the past.
While Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge does not charge an entry fee to visitors and the birds’ disappearance will not impact the refuge financially, the mystery behind its cause persists both for refuge staff and Friends Group members. Locals in the community have provided information to the Friends about what they’ve seen and heard that might shed light on the Seahorse Key mystery, and the Friends Group relays those leads to refuge staff.
“This event shows how important it is that the refuge has adequate staffing. Otherwise, there would be no way to monitor the wildlife and maintain the habitat they depend on,” said Hall. “We’ve been watching with interest, and we’re happy that so many people around the world have too.”