The Mystery of Seahorse Key's Missing Bird Colony Veers Into Strange Territory

The first thing Captain Kenny McCain noticed at Seahorse Key was that something was wrong with the sky. It was a drizzly morning in April 2015, the first break in a freak spring squall that had lashed Florida’s Gulf Coast for two days. Captain Kenny, as he’s known around Cedar Key, the Big Bend fishing town where his family has lived for seven generations, had motored his skiff three miles to the outermost island of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. He was planning to check on the facilities of the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory, to see how the University of Florida research station had weathered the storm.

Captain Kenny knows the island better than most. After 24 years as an officer of the refuge, he left the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2014 to take up with the lab, shuttling students and scientists out to the wild, 165-acre island they shared with an alarmingly dense population of cottonmouth snakes and some 10,000 to 20,000 colonial nesting birds. He was a half-mile from the dock when he noticed something that made him change course: The skies above Seahorse were eerily empty.

Swinging his boat around to the island’s west side, he pulled in next to a mangrove-shrouded peninsula, typically the epicenter of the Seahorse Key rookery. He killed the motor and was stunned by silence. Two days earlier, the chatter of pelicans, cormorants, and maybe 10 different species of wading birds had been all but deafening. Now the only sound he heard was the rhythmic swoosh of waves against the beach.

When deputy refuge manager Larry Woodward answered his cell phone that afternoon, he recognized Captain Kenny’s drawl. “Got a problem out at Seahorse,” he heard Kenny say. “You ain’t got no birds out here.”