By Kay Newton
When Karen Mason first moved to Florida from Pennsylvania, she hated it. The land was flat, overpopulated and humid. Yet, she continued to live there for over 35 years, and as a bird-steward whose job is to ensure the safety of the birds in her environment, she went on to click one of the most iconic photographs in the hall of conservation fame: that of a mother black-skimmer bird feeding her chick a cigarette stub.
Karen’s love of nature and passion for photography led to time spent in the Florida swamps watching birds. She came across an article about skimmers, a seabird that is native to North and South America. So impressed was she with the quirky bird that she started work as a volunteer at the Suncoast Sea Bird Sanctuary.
The centre rehabilitates injured coastal birds. Karen helped to feed the chicks especially when it became apparent to her that the shorebirds living close to the beach were in danger. Skimmers nest close together in a group, and the beaches in Florida are overpopulated with hotels and condos. There is very little space for nests, even with cordoned nesting areas.
As a bird steward, Karen’s job was to take photos of their trials and tribulations. Birds move quickly, so rapid successive frames became part of her remit. Karen invested in a Nikkon D500 and a decent lens. During her first year as a steward, there was a huge storm, which washed all the eggs out of the nests. Fortunately, it was early enough in the season for them to renest and produce chicks.
“I found it fascinating to connect to their emotions, to see them through the camera lens. Whether it was dogs or humans too close or a neighbouring nester, love for their chicks or partner, these birds show their feelings,” says Karen.
Stewarding also involves teaching and educating the local population in the hope of saving the bird population. One day Karen was giving a talk and at the same time taking photos. She saw a mother give her chick something and snapped the image. The following day, Karen looked at the snapshots on a bigger computer screen and realised what she had caught on camera.
She explains, “The mother bird was feeding her chick a cigarette butt! It was incredible! I was so disgusted and angry. How had humans stooped so low as a species? I was sick to the stomach and furious. So much so, I did something I would have never dreamed of – I distributed the images to as many sites and influential people as possible.”
The image not only affected Karen’s emotions but also picked up viral outrage. Messages began to pour in from around the world. For Karen as a non-tech savvy person, it became a bit overwhelming.
“There was not enough time to ask for donations, a credit for the image or answer all the mail. Despite this, it made me feel good. The image had stopped people in their tracks and change something about their life – whether it was to volunteer or make sure they disposed of their cigarette butts correctly. Every person counts. As we change, we affect change in other people,” she says.
The continual influx of people to Florida means the wetlands are disappearing rapidly. Every day Karen runs across a new road extension or condo.
“Florida lacks public transport so the roads get bigger and wider. The state is becoming solid human. The charm has gone. No one cares about nature. The government is not protecting the water source and the beaches, the reason why people want to be there,” says Karen.
Her words are particularly relevant at a time when Florida is facing, for the first time in American history, a building collapse in Miami, killing 97 persons with more unaccounted for.
Experts are investigating if iron columns in the basement of Champlain Towers South, a 40-year-old luxury condo constructed on reclaimed wetland, could have rusted due to water seepage in the soil or shifted due to vibrations from a nearby construction. In either case, over-construction in a sensitive area would be to blame for the tragedy.
Karen still has hope for the birds. “Without volunteers, the birds would have already gone. Education leads to change,” she says, referring to the National Aubudon Society, which protects birds and their habitants, and other associations that are making a difference. “There is hope because the people continue to put their hearts on the line.”
She wishes that schoolchildren had compulsory trips to landfills and not into nature. “We all need to be put in front of the issue, to think about what we do. We take more than we need, and this is not natural.”
It is not just the skinners who are affected, she says. Pelicans are wrapped in fishing line and hooks. Burrowing owls use cigarettes for their nests. Plastic is killing their source of food – there are fewer fish in the ocean.
“Everyone can do their bit. Take a canvas bag to the store instead of using plastic bags. Become a volunteer,” she advises. “Walk your trash to the bin. Especially cigarette butts!”
Published in eShe’s July-August 2021 issue