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New bird rescue operation fills a void
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Suncoast Bird Rescue volunteers release a pelican at Indian Rocks Beach.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – A new bird rescue operation has begun in Pinellas County and its founder says it is to fill a void.

Robin Vergara of Indian Rocks Beach started the Suncoast Bird Rescue organization several weeks ago and recently it was sanctioned by the state of Florida as an official nonprofit organization.

Vergara, who spent a year volunteering at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Redington Shores, said he decided to branch out to fill the void left when the Sanctuary stopped taking injured birds because of financial difficulties.

“I always knew we needed another facility regardless of what was happening there,” he said. “It may have speeded it up but there were calls coming in for injured birds and we hopped in. We rescued the birds and brought them to a couple of different vets that we work with.”

Vergara partnered with friend Mel Taylor to set up the operation.

“We realized having lived here in Indian Rocks Beach that there was a great need for bird rescue and rehab,” he said. “So we jumped in, we felt like it was something that had to exist. It is not a luxury but an absolute necessity to have a well-run and managed bird facility here on the beach.”

Technically the new bird rescue facility is not on the beach. It isn’t anywhere yet. Talks have begun to form some sort of cooperative effort with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Vergara and Taylor are talking with the city of Largo to establish a rescue center at McGough Park on Walsingham Road near the bridge to Gulf Boulevard. Taylor says that appears to be the most promising site so far.

“Robin has spent time talking with a number of municipalities and so far Largo has been the most active, although everything to date has been informal,” said Taylor, a resident of Philadelphia who is considering moving to Pinellas County soon. “The talks have progressed to the point where we believe they are quite serious.”

In early March, Vergara disclosed that Barbara Suto was joining the group. For 30 years Suto was the hospital supervisor at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. Her departure was connected to the financial difficulties at that facility. Taylor says she’s a welcome addition to the group.

“She is extremely important because she brings so much expertise and experience to the operation,” he said. “She is nationally recognized. She’s looked upon as one of the top rehabbers in the country. Everyone in the avian community knows who she is.”

Micki Eslick, the operations manager at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, says Suto will be missed from their operation.

“She was our hospital supervisor and has been here for 30 years,” she said. “She is world renowned. I was surprised when she said she was leaving.”

Eslick said reports that Suto and others had not been paid were exaggerated.

“It is not that they haven’t been paid,” she said. “They were getting money as we were getting it. They are behind, yes, but they have been receiving money. We are financially strapped, very strapped.”

The fact that a new bird rescue facility is opening is welcome news, said Eslick.

“The birds need all the help they can get, I’m for rescuing birds,” she said. “We’ve taken in from 5,000 to 10,000 birds every year. So to take some of the burden off us is wonderful. We’ve had so many injured birds it has been overwhelming.”

Despite having suspended hospital operations the Sanctuary remains open and Eslick says the birds that are at the facility will continue to be cared for and fed.

“Our food supply is fine.” she said. “In fact there is a fish truck coming in tomorrow. We’re still open for people to come and look around and there are plenty of free flying birds to see. We have a number of volunteers that still come and help feed the birds and clean.”

Eslick said the Sanctuary will continue to solicit donations and has a fundraiser planned for March 16 from 3-5 p.m., a wine and food tasting event. She says it is all aimed at getting back to normal.

“We’ve been working with the IRS and Worker’s Comp and the Department of Labor and all of them have been good to us,” she said. “We have set up payment arrangements and everything has been worked out, we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

She said the next step is to re-open the hospital.

“Yes the hospital will be open again. To give you a timeline of when that might be, I don’t know. We’re going to get our house in order and get things moving forward and pursue re-opening the hospital,” she said. “It will definitely be re-opened. There are too many birds that need help.”

It is the plight of those birds that has Barbara Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society happy that the new Suncoast Bird Rescue operation has begun.

“It will make a big difference especially when we’re talking about seabirds and long legged birds,” she said. “We have lots of birds, lots of traffic, lots of fishing lines; this is a high impact zone.”

Walker said the curtailment of the hospital operation at the Sanctuary has left a void that perhaps even the new facility can’t fill.

“I think it is going to take more than that,” she said. “The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was a high volume hospital. It doesn’t completely fill the void. We could use a facility in North Pinellas.”

Walker does have hopes for the new Bird Rescue operation given the events of the past few weeks.

“With Barb Suto moving to the new place puts a positive on it,” she said. “She is one of the best rehabilitators in the country and we really need her, we’ll be depending on her a lot.”

As for the current situation at the Seabird Sanctuary, Walker said perhaps it was time.

“They have been there a long time and I am certain they know a lot about birds there,” she said. “But over time it morphed into something that might not be up to date. It is a sad situation but I’m not looking at it as an ending, but as a new beginning.”

That new beginning has to rest squarely on the shoulders of Vergara and his group as they attempt to get the new Suncoast Bird Rescue off the ground. It will take money – money that Taylor said isn’t there yet.

“Robin and his people have taken the money out of their own pockets because they saw the need to rescue birds and do the work,” he said.

Taylor said fundraising efforts will begin soon and the majority of it will be on the Internet.

As time passes and the new operation takes hold, Vergara said it would take patience before everything is in place.

“Paramount in our plans is transparency and accountability,” he said. “We are not fully operational and right now we’re fielding calls for the Audubon Society. We just can’t be inundated right now, we’re just growing. Be patient. We are working on it and doing it the correct way.”

Sanctuary to hold fundraiser

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary will hold a fundraiser Saturday, March 16, 3 to 5 p.m., at the sanctuary, 18328 Gulf Blvd.

Food and wines will be provided by PRP Wines and Tastefully Simple, which also will give two certificates for a silent auction for a wine tasting for 15 people.
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