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A guide to rebuilding nature where it’s been lost and creating homes where wildlife can move in

By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

“Is that a giant potato suspended in the water? Nope, it’s the Florida manatee, a slow-moving marine mammal known for its plump figure and habit of munching on seagrass all day.”

(Wild Miami)

Unlike an ordinary field guide, Wild Miami describes the rich and fragile biodiversity of South Florida with fun and flair. Part travel book, part nature guide, part conservation spotlight, this handy yet extensive guide has something for everyone to enjoy and discover in this vibrant tropical city. With fields of expertise, unique perspectives, and a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, the four friends embarked on this writing journey three years ago, somewhat accidentally.

"I received a call from Will McKay, who's with Timber Press in Portland, Oregon," says Fernando Bretos, a conservationist scientist. "And he said, Fernando, we've just published a book called Wild LA in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and it came out great; it's selling really well. We want to make Miami the next stop. He pitched the idea to me, and I told Shannon about it, and we said let's do it."

Shannon Jones, who oversees conservation programs at the Phillip & Patricia Frost Museum of Science, immediately shared the idea with her husband, Thomas J. Morrell, a fisheries biologist with The Billfish Foundation and co-founder of MORAES, as well as with Brian Diaz, an interpretive naturalist. At that time, Brian was working with the Frost’s program, Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE).

“It's really just the result of four friends coming together and working hard,” Fernando continues.

As a program officer at the Ocean Foundation, Fernando oversees projects that study marine migratory species, restore tropical coastal habitats, and use ocean science diplomacy to encourage countries to protect shared marine resources.

"I think, if you get outside, as an everyday Miami citizen, you'll really love what you see in South Florida. Just get outside, get in the water, and let nature talk to you," he says.

Shannon Jones, Brian Diaz, Thomas J. Morrell, & Fernando Bretos

The Wild Miami guide profiles 305 species – from beautiful flowers and towering palm trees to manatees and green tree frogs to spotted sunfish and great blue herons. It also includes 25-day trip itineraries to help everyone explore the natural wonders on trails and beaches, in public parks, and in the backyard.

“There are a lot of hurdles that we, as a ground-zero city, have to overcome. And it's tough to have somebody care about that without understanding, seeing it, or being involved," adds Thomas. "So, if you put someone on those field trips, they will be inundated with information, causes, and organizations that they might just be unaware of."

“I think that's just one of the things that the book aims to do: take you from your house and put you in these parks and these field trips and see these species so that you can understand it, appreciate it, and then fly for them."

Find Wild Miami at Books & Books

While Thomas and Fernando encourage tourists and locals to get outside, Brian emphasizes the importance of looking within our own backyards.

“I live here in Hialeah, and Hialeah is not the first thing people think of when talking about nature. The word 'Hialeah' itself is a Seminole word; it means a beautiful prairie that used to be part of the Everglades out here. As far as the eye could see, that prairie is gone. However, there's still plenty of opportunity to bring wildlife back.

Over the last five years, I've cultivated a biodiversity of native plants, and I now observe all kinds of birds, butterflies, and creatures that I'd never even known existed coming back to an area that was once just a lawn for many years.”

Brian believes everyone can help rebuild the ecosystem through plant life: “Research which plants are native to your area, the type of soil they require, their watering needs, and their sunlight requirements. Then, go out and find sources that are growing them and bring them back.”

“It all starts from that base,” he adds. “The plants are the food for the wildlife, so if you give them the food and the resources, they will come back.”

Shannon also follows this practice. As Brian advised, she planted coontie plants in her backyard to bring back the rare atala hairstreak butterfly.

During World War II, wild coontie was extensively harvested for starch production. So much of the wild coontie stock was removed that the butterfly population plummeted and was almost extirpated from Florida.

"The atala hairstreak butterfly was actually thought to be completely extinct for a while because we had over-harvested, and now the coontie plant has come back; we use it in landscaping a lot," Shannon says. "And now it is in my house."

"I had been caring for them for about two and a half years, and the atala butterflies have found their way to it. It's just a really great visual in my backyard for practicing what we preach in the book."

International Coastal Cleanup Day on Sept 16 | Photo Courtesy of Pelican Harbor Seabird Station

“In Finding Nemo, the loveable large-mouthed pelican, Nigel, helped rescue Nemo and reunite him with his father. In real life, it's Nigel and his fellow pelicans who need rescue, having faced many threats in the United States since the early 1900s.”

(Wild Miami)

While Wild Miami showcases the vast array of trails, parks, and species in the Miami area, the book also features a comprehensive list of local conservation organizations that need everyone's support and involvement. One such emergency wildlife center is Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, dedicated to healing and releasing a multitude of native species like squirrels, hawks, opossums, turtles, and gulls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Currently, its hospital is caring for 150 patients.

By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

"There are a lot of people who really go above and beyond to help these animals," says Pelican Harbor communications director Hannah McDougall. "If everybody just did one little thing, it could make a big difference.”

Fishing hook and line injuries are common in pelicans, so it’s vital to be aware of your surroundings when you fish and always dispose of your hook and line in the appropriate receptacles.

Hannah also flags the importance of maintaining native plant and insect life for birds to eat rather than providing them with human food. "Do not ever, ever, ever feed wildlife. Let them be wild, don't feed them your cheetos or french fries."

Although brown pelicans are no longer considered endangered, other pelicans and seabirds are still far from thriving. According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, one in eight species of birds are currently facing extinction. A loss of bird species can indicate an overall loss of biodiversity, which in turn reduces the productivity of the entire ecosystem.

"When we see a decline in birds, it's obvious that there's something going wrong in the environment, and it's not long until that starts to impact us as well," Hannah adds.

Sophie Ringel, founder of Clean Miami Beach

“There are seven different species of sea turtle around the world, five of which can be found in Florida waters. Of those, the loggerhead, green (chelonia mydas), and hawksbill (eretmochelys imbricata) are the ones you're most likely to spot while you're boating, snorkeling, or scuba diving.”

(Wild Miami)

The wildlife ecosystems may be almost invisible at a glance, but their presence – and absence – can still be felt. Between the months of March and October, something very special happens at South Florida beaches at night: sea turtle nesting season. Tourists and beachgoers may have noticed yellow areas on beaches marked off by stakes or caution tape.

These are the areas where a sea turtle has laid her eggs in the sand. The sand acts as an incubation area where, after about 60 days, the eggs will hatch. Sea turtle nests are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and The Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Conservation Program monitors nesting efforts.

Pelican Harbor warns: If you see a baby turtle in the wild, remember they are doing just fine. Turtles are precocial. This means that when they hatch from their eggs, they are already capable of exploring and finding food. What tourists and locals must do is take care of their trash. Cigarette butts, fishing line, and other plastic trash can harm turtles immediately.

“The babies go out, and they start looking for food, and the first thing that they might catch is plastic trash in the sand or a cigarette butt, which can kill them,” explains Nestor Cano, an environmental activist and CEO of Turtl Project, a 100% petroleum-free sustainable water sports apparel brand.

“Another thing that might endanger baby turtles is light. Sea turtles use the light of the moon to navigate the way to the ocean. Artificial lighting from streets and buildings and flashlights on the beach can disorient them from their way back to the water.”

The problem of plastic pollution extends from land to water, and sea turtles, along with other marine animals, can encounter dangers from plastic their entire lives. Initiatives like Plastic Free Miami Beach/Plastic Free 305, which involve businesses and volunteer cleanups with organizations like Debris Free Ocean and Clean Miami Beach, aim to encourage everyone to become environmental stewards and switch to reusable alternatives.

"It's mind-blowing to me to know that since our beginning in 2019, we have hosted over 275 beach cleanups and removed more than 85,000 pounds of trash,” says Sophie Ringel, founder of Clean Miami Beach. “I'm so thankful to everyone for being a part of our growing movement and creating a safe and clean environment where our beautiful wildlife can thrive."

Photo courtesy of Clean Miami Beach


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