Local Restoration Project Shows Birds and People Can Share Tiny Island

Local restoration project shows birds and people can share tiny island

12-15-2011 // Bob Serata
Gulls

The City of Orange Beach, Ala. wants to fix Robinson Island — all 0.02 square miles of it.

“I believe in the small, local projects,” said Phillip West, coastal resource manager for the city. “Some folks say it’s a whole lot better to protect big spaces. I get that. But we’re in a largely urban environment. You can’t tell me that pocket wetlands or pockets of habitat spaced throughout [the area] don’t serve a meaningful role. We’re in this neotropical migratory songbird flyway and they don’t want to just land on condo roofs,” he said.

Robinson Island is tiny by most standards: just 12 acres of sand covered by scrub, grass and a few wind-blown pines and oaks. It lies about a half mile inside Perdido Pass, where the Perdido River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, two miles west of the Alabama-Florida border.

Located in a protected bay, Robinson is surrounded by calm, shallow, generally clear water and sea grass beds. Close by are high rise condos and heavily developed residential and vacation communities. The island was slated for development in the late 1990s but the project, which called for 38 single family homes, boat piers for each, a community pier with 19 boat slips, community swimming pool, tennis courts and a roadway running the length of the island, was killed in 1999 when the Department of Interior (DOI) requested the revocation of a utility permit issued by the Corps of Engineers to run underwater water, electricity and sewage lines to the island. Unfortunately, not before the developer took out most of the island’s trees.

In its revocation request, the DOI stated that the then-14-acre “Robinson Island is one of two remaining heron rookeries in coastal Alabama. Robinson Island also provides both a first and last landfall for neotropical birds as they migrate across the Gulf of Mexico.” The agency also said the island “provides very valuable habitat functions, seemingly out of proportion to its size.”

Challenges for Robinson Island

For decades, the island has been hammered by hurricanes (the worst was Ivan in 2004) and tropical storms, strong river currents and, more recently, huge numbers of boat wakes. Last year, the BP oil disaster added to the island’s troubles.

Booms were deployed inside the pass to protect Robinson and the other inland islands. The booms probably helped but as spill responders and resource managers have learned, they are an imperfect solution.

“We’re still picking up a couple pounds a day of tar balls [from the islands and shorelines],” said West. “This time last year it was closer to 300-1500 pounds a day,” he said.

Still, having survived the ravages of nature, dredging, drilling, boating and building, Robinson Island faces a new challenge: sun worshippers who set their anchors, chaises and coolers on its beaches and walk their dogs on its sand and grass.

A balanced local solution

Today, most of the heron nests are gone from Robinson Island. Fewer numbers and species of migrating birds stop on the island to rest and forage. Two full acres of land (actually, sand) have disappeared since the 1999 DOI letter.

But one local resident has held on.

Robinson Island is the breeding ground for a small population of least terns, the smallest members of the gull and tern family. Biologists don’t know if the Least Terns living near the Gulf coast, those living alongside rivers throughout the central U.S. (commonly called Interior Least Terns) and California Least Terns are separate species or separate populations of a single species.

They do know that the Interior and California Least Terns are endangered species, their populations decimated over the years by plume hunting and habitat loss (primarily, river dams, flood channels and riverside development).

The coastal Least Terns, however, are fighting extinction. Their populations are down because of habitat loss but in many locales their numbers are relatively stable. They share Robinson Island with a few nesting herons, remnants of the once large wading bird rookery, and an ever-growing number of pleasure boaters.

A little restoration goes a long way

On Robinson Island a little restoration will go a long way toward making life easier for birds and humans.

The City of Orange Beach has applied for funding through the National Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) April 2011 Framework Agreement in which BP provided money for early restoration projects — money separate from BP’s ultimate liability for damage its Macondo well caused to the Gulf.

West said that the city will use the money for habitat restoration — reforestation, dune plantings, land stabilization and bird nesting platforms. As important is the city’s plan for fences to separate humans from terns and signage to educate visitors about landing on and exploring Robinson Island.

If the city’s full request is granted, the money will be used for islands adjacent to Robinson, in particular Bird Island, another Least tern nesting site that gets heavy recreational use.

“Getting fencing up and real good signage to educate people and to alert them to stay out of the bird nesting area and try to do something with the habitat which has been disturbed by hurricanes and tropical storms are the big challenges on Bird Island,” said Larry Goldman, chairman of the Islands of Perdido Marine Park Foundation.

West added, “Trying to intensify either the carrying capacity or the cover or the forage capability of a site does make a difference. If every community did that, I think a lot of these species wouldn’t be struggling as much as they are.”

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