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Estero Bay birds nesting in hidden places

Andrea Stetson
Special to Coastal Life
Volunteer Betty Harig looks for nests on the islands in Estero Bay.

Nestled deep among the thick green leaves of clusters of mangrove trees sits a pile of sticks. Cheryl Clark, aquatic preserve manager of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, spots the hidden nest and calls out “yellow crown night heron incubating.”

Hour after hour, island after island throughout Estero Bay, Clark zones in on these hidden nests. She’s been doing this for eight years and seems to spot nests that others have trouble seeing.

“Night herons are the hardest nest to see,” she said. “They like to have their nests hidden so they are really hard to see.”

Betty Harig points her binoculars at the spot Clark pinpointed. After several minutes, she finally sees the nest, too.

It is logged, and the boat slowly moves on as the ladies scour the mangrove islands through their high-powered binoculars.

Every month, Clark monitors 25 islands in Estero Bay, logging all the nests and checking whether eggs are incubating or chicks popping up their little fuzzy heads.

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Birds are nesting on islands throughout Estero Bay.

Every trip

Every month, she takes three volunteers along for the ride.

Jim Simantel goes on every trip. He has a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Environmental Protection boating certification so he captains the small vessel.

“I’m a boater,” he said. “I was looking for something to do and my wife was looking for something for me to do.”

The other two volunteers take turns spotting nests with Clark or recording the data the spotters shout out.

Harig took her first trip this month and enjoyed a day on the water.

“Some of the people from Audubon recommended it so I wanted to try it,” she said. “It’s so much fun. I’m around and she needs the help especially in the summer. It’s a nice excuse to get out.”

Maureen Goranson also took her first volunteer trip this month.

“It sounded interesting to me,” she said. “I thought I’d like to try it.

“I think I’m a better recorder than observer,” Goranson added, “just being out on the water, that is always good no matter what.”

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Birds are nesting on islands throughout Estero Bay.

Volunteers sought

Clark is always looking for volunteers, especially in the summer when many of her 20 regular helpers head north.

This month, the crew of bird spotters saw a wide variety of birds nesting and building nests. There is a nest with a blue heron that mated with a morph white heron. Clark has also seen a very rare red pouch pelican.

“It’s not nesting, but I have seen it this year,” Clark said. “It gets a red pouch when it is breeding. It looks exactly like a regular pelican, but its pouch is blood red.”

Clark has also found a lot of juvenile bald eagles in Estero Bay this year. Birds just seen are not recorded. Only those nesting get ticked off on the log sheet.

One island had 45 pelicans and 23 cormorants nesting, while the next island had no nests. Some islands had one or two very hidden yellow night heron nests, while others had very obvious cormorant nests perched right on top of the trees.

While spotting hidden nests does take practice, Clark said even newcomers can do it

“I have had people come out that have never birded before and they see things,” she said. “But I think having a good search image of what the nest looks like helps. A lot of people are used to looking for birds and the birds are well camouflaged. It’s the nests that stick out more.”

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Birds are nesting on islands throughout Estero Bay.

Surveys

Bird nest surveys began in Estero Bay in 1977 with just brown pelicans. Other birds were later added to the list. Clark has been surveying the islands since 2008.

Originally only 14 islands were watched, but more were added as researchers began spotting nests or birds carrying nesting materials to other islands.

“Every year we go out and scout to make sure we are not missing anything,” Clark said. “The number of islands will only grow.”

For those without a boat, volunteering is a great way to see the birds and enjoy a day on Estero Bay. For those with a boat, Clark cautions people not to disturb the birds.

“Stay 300 feet away from islands,” she said. “You want to make sure you are not changing their natural behavior. Have good binoculars or a good lens on your camera.”

The Estero River is being choked by 'Florida holly'

To volunteer

Call Cheryl Clark, aquatic preserve manager, at 239-530-1001 or email at Cheryl.clark@dep.state.fl