Changing Planet

Historic Flights Aid Bahamas Shorebirds (VIDEO)

“In our work at Conservian, we’ve done aerial surveys before, but this was the trip of a lifetime,” says conservation biologist, Margo Zdravkovic, following six days of surveying the Bahamas with LightHawk volunteer pilot Jimmy Roswell of Jupiter, Florida.

Conservian biologist and co-founder Margo Zdravkovic and LightHawk volunteer pilot Jimmy Roswell in the cabin of Roswell’s Piper Super Cub. image: Roswell/LightHawk

With Roswell at the controls of his bright yellow Piper PA-18 Super Cub seaplane and Zdravkovic photographing the coastline below, the pair completed the first comprehensive aerial surveys ever accomplished in the Bahamas to document all visible shorebird habitat and incidences of the invasive plant species casuarina pine (Casuarina equisetifolia) for each island surveyed.

The aerial images and data collected over 2,800 miles of the undulating Bahamian coastline is proving invaluable for Conservian. The information is allowing the organization to save time and resources by accurately prioritizing their actions in the Bahamas to target high-quality shorebird habitat and bypass areas that lack habitat.

Conservian biologist Margo Zdravkovic looking out at Bahamas coastline. image: Conservian/LightHawk
Conservian biologist Margo Zdravkovic looking out at Bahamas coastline. image: Conservian/LightHawk

Zdravokovic co-founded Conservian, a non-profit that channels her passion for protecting shorebirds throughout the Western Hemisphere. Planning to survey the Bahamas, Zdravkovic had been hoping to partner with LightHawk since she first heard of the group, which uses flight to accelerate conservation efforts.

Pilot Roswell is “…an excellent stick and rudder guy, probably the best pilot I’ve ever worked with,” says Zdravokovic. This was Roswell’s first LightHawk mission and he covered more than 2,800 miles in six days. “We’d be up at 6:00am and in the air by 8:00am. Jimmy was really gung-ho and incredibly passionate about accomplishing our goals,” recalls Zdravkovic.

VP Jimmy Roswell carried extra fuel for the survey missions in his floats as reliable fueling stations were scarce. image: Conservian/LightHawk
VP Jimmy Roswell carried extra fuel for the survey missions in his floats as reliable fueling stations were scarce. image: Conservian/LightHawk

Conservian requested LightHawk’s assistance, seeing aerial surveys as the most efficient way to reach its conservation goals in the Bahamas Archipelago. “Before we could do anything,” explains Zdravkovic, “we had to identify the existing shorebird habitat and shoreline presence of invasive Casuarina pine (Casuarina equisetifolia). There was no comprehensive documentation. The new aerial photo data gives us exactly what we need.”

Rum Cay with invasive pine growing on the coastline. image: Conservian/LightHawk
Rum Cay with invasive pine growing on the coastline. image: Conservian/LightHawk

Although solitary beach-nesting species are known to nest throughout the Bahamas, very little data exists on breeding distribution or abundance for the Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) or American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). The new aerial habitat data will allow Conservian to focus ground surveys on the areas that have the greatest potential to support these species.

Showing her affinity for the solitary nesting shorebird species, Zdravkovic says, “They’re very interactive. To protect their nests, the birds try to lead you away from the area, but if you keep searching, suddenly you see three eggs in the sand, well camouflaged but still so vulnerable on the open beach.”

Camouflaged nest of Wilson's Plover. image: Conservian
Camouflaged nest of Wilson’s Plover. image: Conservian

Casuarina, also called Australian pine, is an invasive tree species that grows throughout the Bahamas. The tree has allopathic seeds and needles that destroy the surrounding ground vegetation. “The invasive species has a very shallow root system,” explains Zdravkovic, “so when a storm hits, the trees fall over, taking the sand with them, causing the beach to erode. The pines make it impossible for sea turtles and shorebirds to nest because there’s no shoreline.”

“Casuarina pine destroys the beach for humans, too, because the trees grow to the water’s edge,” Zdravkovic explains. Eradication efforts in the Florida Keys have been successful and Conservian plans to implement a long term program to control the pines in the Bahamas.

“The project would be almost impossible without LightHawk and the aerial surveys,” says Zdravkovic. “We’re talking about an archipelago of 700 islands and 2000 cays. Without the data made possible through LightHawk flights, we wouldn’t know where to begin. To gather all the information that we were able to collect in only six days of flying, we’d have had to walk every beach on each one of the islands and cays.”

After spending a year and four days in the extreme cold and white of Antarctica, I came back to the world a changed person. My passion is to share stories of people doing extraordinary things and I've done that since 2008 as the chief storyteller for LightHawk. LightHawk is a unique non-profit that grants flights to conservation groups through a network of volunteer pilots. Nearly everyday LightHawk donates educational, scientific and photography flights covering the U.S., Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. LightHawk volunteer pilots, aircraft and resources help to tip the balance toward sustainability for every major environmental issue within our targeted areas of focus. My favorite part of flying at 1,000 feet in a small aircraft is seeing how that perspective changes how people see their communities and empowers them to take positive action on behalf of conservation. Taking off is pretty cool too.
  • Cherie McCoy

    Wonderful article and a great job by Ms. Zdravkovic and Mr. Roswell. These days it’s so nice to read a story about something being preserved instead of destroyed. Keep up the good work!

  • Tom Wilmers

    Great story on inspiring, much needed work. Amazing what two dedicated individuals can accomplish.

  • Cindy Baker

    Great work! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Joe Blasi

    Good job Margo, Thanks for sharing. Helps to understand what you are doing.



    Fabulous mission!



  • John Q Smith

    Invasive Pines… for how many centuries ?

  • Christine Larouche

    Super work by a super group! Kudos!

  • steve grejda

    Exciting data Margo

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