September 29, 2023
A project at Port Tampa Bay creates a habitat for birds

In some years, 20,000 birds nest at the port's spoil islands - creating the greatest diversity of nesting shorebirds species of any location in Florida.

Economic Backbone - Transportation

A project at Port Tampa Bay creates a habitat for birds

Art Levy | 4/28/2021

A busy port unavoidably creates environmental impacts — and it’s Chris Cooley’s job at Port Tampa Bay to minimize those impacts. As the port’s director of environmental affairs, he’s responsible for making sure the port and its tenants comply with environmental regulations and not harm Tampa Bay’s ecosystem.

Sometimes, though, his job is just about the birds.

Cooley explains how the port contributed to a "historically successful" 2020 migratory bird nesting season in Tampa Bay.

Spoil Islands: Tampa Bay is naturally a very shallow water body. It averages only about 12 feet deep. The shipping channels for today's modern ships are between 40 and 50 feet deep, so obviously there's a large dredge channel in the bay. It's about 41 miles long from the Gulf of Mexico to our port in downtown Tampa. So, that's a lot of material that has to be dredged and maintained. When storms come through, it'll silt in, so we do regular dredging, and every port needs someplace to put that material. Back in the '70s and early '80s, the port decided that it needed to create islands — they're called spoil islands, and they're right in the middle of Tampa Bay. There are two really large ones (named 2D and 3D), about 500 acres each.

Nesting Habitat: The soils and sands that are put there kind of settle in and create this beautiful sandy beach habitat. The islands are one of the top bird-nesting sites in the country. Bird-nesting season starts April 1 and goes until Aug. 31, so the birds start arriving in March to mate, build nests and raise their young. That started to become a little bit of an issue with any dredging happening during bird nesting season, so the port and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got together with Audubon Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and we came up with a migratory bird protection plan.

Do Not Disturb: Basically, we take extensive precautions to make sure we're not disturbing the birds during nesting season. So, for five months we basically shut the islands down. We try to schedule all of our dredging outside of bird-nesting season. Also, there's no access to the public. It’s off-limits to beachgoers. We post ‘no trespassing’ signs and put notes on there that it’s a special bird-nesting habitat area and also an active port facility.

Diverse Bird Population: It has become a prime bird-nesting site. Certain years, there will be 20,000 birds nesting on these islands and some species, like the least tern and the black skimmer, it’s one of the few places in the state where they are currently successfully nesting. Other birds include the American oystercatcher, which is threatened. Rosette spoonbills will nest on the spoil islands, which are some of the only places in the state where they successfully nest. Other species include brown pelicans, white ibises, sandpipers, royal terns, sandwich terns and laughing gulls.


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