Why did Marco Marriot worker allegedly mow down shorebirds? 'That's the million-dollar question'

Amy Bennett Williams
Naples Daily News

Renardo Stewart isn't the only person to have been in direct contact with one of the five threatened black skimmers he's charged with killing Monday.

Witnesses saw the 24-year-old JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort employee gun his golf cart through a flock of black skimmers resting on the sand near the hotel, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Detained by the Marco Island Police, the Bonita Springs man admitted to the crime, and now faces five misdemeanor violations from the state agency.

Seven months earlier, Beth Forys stood on Sarasota's Lido Beach, holding one of those five, a healthy young adult, as she gently placed a band on its leg before releasing it to lead the rest of its life, which could have spanned more than two decades – wild skimmers live up to 25 years – if not for Stewart.

One of five protected black skimmers killed by Renardo Stewart of Bonita Springs, who admitted to driving a  golf cart through the resting birds.

"We are devastated to learn of the recent incident on our beach," wrote the hotel's Douglas Corbett in an email. "We are cooperating fully with the authorities’ investigation, and are taking steps internally to address this serious matter."

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As for why Stewart would do such a thing, "That's the million-dollar question," said FWC spokeswoman ​​Arielle Callender. Attempts to reach Stewart by phone and on social media were unsuccessful.

The loss goes beyond five birds, says Forys, a professor of biology and environmental studies at St. Petersburg's Eckerd College. Overall, "the species isn't doing that well," she said. There are some 6,800 breeding pairs left in Florida, with the greatest concentrations in the Tampa/St. Pete area and Marco Island according to the Florida Shorebird Alliance. She and her team band and release them to study their travels and habits.

Like Southwest Florida's human population, the region's skimmers include both summer-breeding year-rounders and snowbirds, who fly in from as far away as the eastern seaboard to winter on our sunny beaches, feeding and resting in order to gear up for chick-rearing. 

Skimmers are night hunters, gliding over dark waters with open mouths, using their longer lower mandible like a knife just beneath the surface, "until their bill touches a fish and as soon as it does, it snaps it up," said Brad Cornell, Audubon of the Western Everglades' policy director. Because skimmers are nocturnal, the birds Stewart allegedly killed were likely sleeping or dozing and not as fast to react when he plowed into them, Cornell said.

Three dead black skimmers on the beach near JW Marriott on Marco Island, where resort worker Renardo Stewart ran over them with a golf cart, killing five of the protected species,

He hopes this can be a teaching moment. His nonprofit has worked with the Marriott before: "One of our Shorebird Stewards, Brittany Piersma, witnessed one of their staff feeding gulls," Cornell said. "Instead of criticizing that one individual, we went to the supervisor for the beach program (and) asked, 'Can we do some training programs?' "

Cornell said they'll renew the offer, in hopes nothing like this will happen again. "At the end of the day, what I think we have going on here is basically a kid who was just hotdogging and did not know what harm could come from him driving into the flock," Cornell said. "He probably just thought the flock would fly and get out of the way, and they did try, but he jumped five of them, so I don’t think he realized that was even possible."

He hopes Stewart will be able to make amends. "I don’t want him to feel bitter and like, ‘I hate birds – these birds have done me in and now I’m out to get them the rest of my life.' (Community service) makes a whole lot of sense to us.”

Audubon works hard to educate beachgoers about giving shorebirds space. "Some people just send their grandkids running through the flock so they can take a picture, and that’s bad enough," Cornell said. "It's really important to figure out how we can enjoy shorebirds, but also share the beach with them."

If you witness someone threatening or harassing wildlife, please contact the Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922).