County workers take down an Australian pine tree containing what local
bird enthusiasts say was the active nest of an endangered night heron,
which is protected under federal law.
By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer
BRADENTON BEACH — At least 30 active bird nests were destroyed at Coquina Beach when Manatee County cut down 63 Australian pine trees, according to Barbara Hines, of Holmes Beach.
"I saw them actually bulldoze trees with active nests in them," Hines said. "I told them to stop. I was crying. There were babies in those nests. I told them what they were doing, but they wouldn’t listen and they wouldn’t stop."
The county doesn’t see it in quite the same way.
"We had our DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) permit for construction," said Tom Yarger, Manatee County park projects manager. "We did speak to Ms Hines on site and she told us there were active nests. We feel we used due diligence and we do not think we took any active nests. We saw no active signs of nesting where we took down trees."
Nevertheless, Hines said she’s going to lodge a formal complaint with the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and with the U.S. Fish and Game Commission.
"The taking of an active night heron nest is a state and federal crime," said Chad Allison, who works in the law enforcement arm of FWC. "If you destroy an active nest it’s a second degree misdemeanor subject to a maximum fine of $500 and up to 60 days in jail."
According to FWC’s bird expert, Nancy Douglas, an active nest is any nest with baby birds or eggs in it. She added that it’s also against U.S. law.
"The U.S. passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Florida signed onto that law," she said. "Night herons are an endangered species and you have to get a permit to take even an inactive nest to ensure that there are no birds still there."
Allison said that only the federal government can issue a permit to take an active nest, and they almost never do so except in dire emergencies.
The county bulldozed the trees in the parking lot at Coquina Beach on May 16. They said the operation was to control access to the parking lots and to control gang activity in the wake of the shootings there on Easter Sunday.
"This was not an emergency," Hines said. "They could have used some other means to control those parking lots until the babies had fledged."
Hines, who is a retired judge, vice chair of the Holmes Beach code enforcement board and a wildlife artist, has been photographing the nesting activities for several weeks so she could paint them.
"I know there were babies in those nests," she said. "I took close-ups of the nests and then brought the image out and snapped another picture. Finally I snapped a picture of the bulldozer pushing down the tree, nest and all. You can see it’s the same tree by the configuration of the branches."
Allison said FWC would prosecute any case with documented evidence that active night heron nests had been destroyed, but he wasn’t willing to speculate whether or not Hines’ photos would document the taking without seeing them himself and showing them to an FWC attorney.
"I just don’t know, but we take this very seriously," he said. "We rarely go after counties or municipalities, but we did successfully prosecute Polk County for taking active gopher tortoise burrows."
Yarger said the county had planned to cut down 80 pines, but because of nesting, only 65 were removed.
"There were a number of trees in the south end of the park where we did see signs of active nesting," he commented. "We didn’t take any trees there with squirrels nests or birds nests. We saw no signs of active nesting where we took out trees."
Yarger maintained that from what he observed and from what the workers on site told him, there were no active nests in the trees taken down. He said the assessments were done on the day of the removal — something that Hines says would have scared adult birds away, thereby removing them from their nesting area.
"Of course they wouldn’t have seen signs of nesting," Hines said. "They scared the birds away."
Yarger said he appreciates Hines’ passion for birds. While he certainly doesn’t want to argue the point with her, he maintains the county tried to be as sensitive as possible to any wildlife in the area.
"If we did inadvertently take a nest, we didn’t do it deliberately," he said.