Mark Hedden, far right, executive director of Florida Keys Audubon Society, along with other Christmas Bird Count members watch for birds following in the wakes of shrimp trawlers passing by Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

Climate

As Waters Continue to Rise, Florida's Keys Face a Daunting Future

During this year's Christmas Bird Count on Key West, the impacts of climate change were impossible to ignore.

“Nothing,” says Mark Hedden, as he stares intently at a brackish pond surrounded by buttonwoods. “I’m not even seeing an iguana.” 

Hedden, a big guy with a ponytail and a booming laugh, is the executive director of Florida Keys Audubon. Today he is leading about two dozen birders on the chapter’s Christmas Bird Count, or CBC. An annual Audubon tradition, the CBC celebrated its 120th anniversary this year and is one of the oldest community-science initiatives in the United States. The Key West count, which Hedden helped revive some 15 years ago, helps document birdlife across the seven-square-mile island. These days, though, it's also a crash course in the area’s increasing vulnerability to climate change. 

The pond where Hedden expects to see birdlife—“at least an Anhinga or something”—sits at the end of a raised wooden walkway that meanders through a patch of habitat behind the Key West Wildlife Center. It’s barely 8 a.m. on a clear January morning, and this is our group’s first stop. A dozen folks—many dressed in shorts or light safari shirts and all sporting hats to shield them from the sun—have split off to drive over to Boca Chica Beach to count there, covering the north end of the island. Our half, led by Hedden, will cover the south until both groups meet up later for lunch. Already we’ve encountered Laughing Gulls, White Ibises, Mourning Doves, Northern Mockingbirds, and a gangly Great White Heron—that all-alabaster, Florida-only variant of the Great Blue Heron—insouciantly perching atop the Wildlife Center’s roof. 

But the pond’s a bust. The only bird we see on the walk there and back is a rooster, which circles us warily as Hedden makes bird calls in an attempt to draw something, anything, out. “We count those too,” he explains later, of the rooster. “We count every bird, even exotic domestic fowl.”  The roosters, which keep anyone unused to their dawn yawp from sleeping, have famously taken over Key West. But as we exit the property that houses the pond and head across the street to a park, the group encounters a structure that may soon become as closely associated with this place as the roosters.

One of Key West's famous roosters out for its morning jog. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

The squat gray structure sits on a raised steel platform some six or seven feet above the Wildlife Center’s parking lot. On the platform is a diesel generator and an electrical panel. Beneath the platform, buried under the sandy soil, is a stormwater pump. As sea levels around South Florida have risen slightly more than 3.7 inches since 1996, the city of Key West has spent millions of dollars over the past decade installing pumps, digging injection wells, and plugging outflow pipes with one-way valves to keep the water at bay. The city will likely have to keep spending millions more, as the region is projected to receive anywhere from 17 to 41 inches of sea-level rise by 2060. The pumps aren't nearly as novel—or annoying—as a Key West rooster, but for a string of islands that have turned into the tip of the spear in Florida's efforts to address climate change, they represent a new normal for coastal cities around the country trying to adapt. 

At the park, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, inspecting the bole of a royal palm at the edge of the park, elicits a growl from Hedden. “It’s a terrible name for a good bird,” he mutters. The group fans out into the green space, counting a Cattle Egret and a Great Egret, balancing on a single, spindly black leg, on the marshy grass under a fenced off radio antenna. A second pond is birdier than the first, producing Northern Parulas, Palm Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, and Yellow-throated Warblers—all winter visitors from the north. 

Climate change will have a particularly adverse effect on neotropical warblers and other migrants that currently overwinter in the Keys or depend on them as stopover sites. According to a recent National Audubon Society report, three degrees celsius of warming by 2100—a likely scenario given the pace of current carbon emissions—will warp the warblers’ winter ranges dramatically, forcing them to adapt to new landscapes and longer migrations along with the shifting temperatures. In the Keys and along Florida's coasts, loss of coastal habitat due to sea-level rise, higher tides, and increasingly strong storm surges, all related to climate change, also pose a threat to shorebirds and waders. 

For Keys residents, these shifts are already apparent on a daily basis. Beryn Harty, an Audubon member from Little Torch Key, recalls the changes she's witnessed firsthand as we wander the grounds of Fort Zachary Taylor, a former Civil War military installation that now serves as a state park. Harty’s home was wrecked during Hurricane Irma, the monster storm that barrelled through the middle Keys in 2017. She rebuilt it, but the storm and rising sea levels have altered the hydrology and salinity of the seasonal salt ponds around her house. Usually the ponds teem with birdlife—“50 different species, feeding in shallows on fish, shrimp ”—but Florida's tidal floods, which have been exceptionally bad this year, have distrupted these mini ecosystems and the wildlife that depends on them. While telling me about the ponds, Harty suddenly points to a nearby copse and briskly walks off down the path. “There’s usually an Ovenbird in there!” she calls out with excitement. 

Beryn Frank Harty, left, and Mark Songer, tally birds at the Key West Wildlife Center. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

The impacts of climate change are also altering the Keys' economy. Anxiety over a mixture of sea-level rise, intensifying hurricanes, and land-use decisions have triggered a local housing crisis. Even before Irma thinned out the already meager supply of low-cost housing by damaging 1,700 structures and leaving 4,000 households homeless, a majority of Monroe County residents, which includes those in the Keys, were cost-burdened, meaning they paid more than 30 percent of their income into housing. And here, newer construction, or any work that renovates more than 50 percent of a home, must be built to an exacting code designed to survive future storms and floods, making it expensive. The problem has become so acute that Monroe County has taken it upon itself to build new affordable housing units. 

“The price of housing here is through the roof,” says Mark Songer, a 15-year, full-time Key West resident, as we glass a flock of 20 Killdeer foraging in the tall grass that surrounds the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station Key West, which sits adjacent to the state park. An accountant, Songer has been meticulously keeping tabs of every bird we encounter. As other volunteers help count the Killdeer, he tells me that housing costs are altering the character of his community, that fewer and fewer residents stay here full time. And with median monthly rent hovering around $3,000 in Key West, it’s not hard to see why: Living in paradise is expensive. Living in a slowly flooding paradise, even more so.

It’s barely noon, and the group has a few stops left before lunch. The shadows of dozens of Turkey Vultures will pass over them as they count from the shore hundreds of gulls, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Brown Pelicans following a pair of shrimp trawlers limping into Key West ahead of an approaching cold front. A group of Black Skimmers will tantalize Hedden from a faraway rooftop. And in the Key West Cemetery, Peregrine Falcons will eye the counters warily before being spooked by the second line of a funeral procession.

We lunch at a Cuban restaurant, and both groups—those that counted north, and those that counted south—compare notes. Hedden shows Mark Whiteside, the leader of the northern group, the photo of a pair of dark gray birds spotted in a sea grape that nobody has yet managed to identify. “We know they’re buntings, but we’re not sure what kind,” Hedden says as his phone gets passed around the long table. The conversation inevitably turns to sea-level rise, and Joan Borel, a 20-year resident of Summerland Key, shares that this year was the first time she had trouble driving the 30 minutes down to Key West because of the high tides. 

The group searches the Key West Golf Club for more species. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

The bird numbers decrease a bit after lunch, as the two groups, now joined into one, drive over to the Key West Botanical Gardens to wander through the carefully curated tropical species while seeking shelter in their shade from the high, mid-afternoon sun. The only surprise encounter here is a white-phase Short-tailed Hawk, but as we take State Road A1A to the Key West Golf Club, our last stop, the group finally snags an Osprey as it circles above. 

At the club, a squadron of golf carts is waiting for the counters, courtesy of the golf course, and they drive them across the 18 holes in a convoy, vexing golfers as they go. As part of the Florida land boom in the early 1900s, this course was cut from mangroves in the mid '20s and then expanded again in the '60s. In its brackish ponds swim American Coots, grebes, and gallinules. A single White Pelican plays in the pond’s fountain while a Tricolored Heron stalks around its shore. We reach the farthest pond, at the edge of the course property, late in the afternoon and just as the cold front begins to rumble through with bursts of rain. There, we spot an overwintering Blue-winged Teal. 

By the end of the day, the count has enumerated, according to Hedden, some 79 species, which he says is down from their biggest years, when they’ve encountered close to a hundred different bird species. Though the group's concerns over the challenges facing the Keys and its wildlife has been apparent throughout the count, Hedden cautions against drawing any conclusions about the island's birds from one day’s tally. “The real truth,” he says, “tends to come out in the bigger, more long-term data sets.”

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