TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. – Ed Steponaitis jumps off the boat and trudges through the murky, lukewarm Gulf of Mexico. His shorts soak in the waist-deep saltwater.
He wades 50 yards to Three Rooker Island, a crescent-shaped haven west of Tarpon Springs. Swarms of birds circle above, squeaking and cawing.
On shore, he admires the laughing gulls mingling near the waves. The black skimmers enjoying the balmy June air. An oystercatcher or two. A cormorant. He watches them argue, fish, mate.
“Every time I go out, it’s like the first time,” says Steponaitis, 80.
For four years, he has visited the small sandbar. His treks to Three Rooker are a blessing, “a reason to spend more time in nature,” he says.
And a chance to help his beloved birds.
A host of human disturbances — dogs, drones and fireworks — threaten Florida shorebirds. They can shelter their eggs and chicks from predators. But against throngs of partying beachgoers and boaters?
The birds are defenseless, Steponaitis says.
He is part of dedicated band of volunteers who watch over the winged creatures. On weekends during breeding season, Steponaitis can be found taking slow laps around the island, passing ghost crabs and mangroves lurching toward the water. Along the way, he educates curious beachgoers.
“Tell me about the birds,” one woman asks him.
And he does.
Shorebirds have battled a long, and sometimes bleak, list of threats. Traders plucked plumage for hats and dresses decades ago, driving some species nearly to extinction. Today, worsening storms and tidal waves, fueled by climate change, jeopardize established colonies. And growing Red Tide blooms infect the grunt, mullet and pinfish birds eat.
One thing is consistent: People remain their biggest danger.
In addition to causing pollution, crowds bring development and disorder that encroach on bird habitats, especially as the animals protect nests and offspring.
A stray burst from a Roman candle is enough to send skimmers into a frenzy. A drone can startle a white ibis. Heightened activity near July 4, in a year when tourism season is running long, increases the risk of harmful interaction.
Then there are Floridians, like Steponaitis, seeking to counter the tide of perils.
They join the Audubon Bird Stewardship and Monitoring Program, a statewide volunteer effort designed to survey shorebirds in the wild. Stewards educate people on the personalities of red knots and piping plovers. They shoo unruly visitors, politely and positively. They seek to keep overly close encounters to a minimum.
On unpaid shifts, participants trained by Audubon Florida in Pinellas and Sarasota counties inspect seven nesting sites. Fellow volunteers patrol around the state.
“They’re here to help the birds,” Audubon shorebird biologist Holley Short said. “To save them.”
In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 53 percent of shorebird species on its Birds of Conservation Concern list.
It includes black skimmers, which are scattered along North American coasts and have lost 87 percent of their population since 1996, according to the North American Breeding Bird survey. Several of Florida’s most recognizable birds — including pelicans, American oystercatchers and least terns — are labeled “imperiled” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The stewardship program was created two decades ago in response to the troubling trends.
“It has been the strongest positive force for frontline conservation out of anything we have tried,” said Dan Larremore, a biologist at Honeymoon Island State Park. “It’s all just to try to give the birds two months of peace and quiet for them to hatch their eggs and get their chicks fledged. They deserve that.”
The volunteers come from different backgrounds, in different stages of life. A retired teacher in Treasure Island. A documentary photographer. An Eckerd College student.
All are on a mission to preserve something they think is worth saving.
“There’s so many problems facing the environment that you have to start small,” said longtime volunteer and Oldsmar native Amber Christian, 32. “Otherwise, it’s overwhelming.”
Year after year, the Audubon stewardship program has grown in popularity, said Short, the shorebird biologist.
Audubon Florida employees eventually created an email list, invested in the boat Steponaitis takes to Three Rooker Island and assigned paid stewards to accompany volunteers on shifts.
Steponaitis volunteers as a steward because he worries.
When retirement approached, he and his wife Mara promised they would never settle in Florida, what seemed like a rite of old age for so many people they knew in New England. Then 12 years ago, during a temporary stay in Dunedin, the shorebirds captivated Steponaitis.
He felt awestruck watching them communicate and take flight in the sea spray.
After the move, Steponaitis took a Florida Master Naturalists Course to learn plant names and monitor coastal wildlife. In quiet moments, his eyes began searching for the pointy crowns of royal terns.
Now he fears for the feathered flocks. Research and efforts to protect them offer hope that some shorebirds could leave the species of concern list one day, but not enough.
The end of his volunteer shifts bring Steponaitis a sense of fulfillment — and concern.
He carefully folds his green beach chair and wraps the remnants of a sandwich in plastic. Standing in the Gulf again, Steponaitis takes one last look at the shorebirds. He boards the Audubon vessel.
What will happen to the nests, he wonders, when no one is watching?
On this weekend, at least, the crowds were tame. Only a few boaters docked at the island.
“A slow day,” he thought. “Good for the birds.”