On the grounds of the shuttered 168-acre Calusa Country Club golf course in West Kendall, hidden in the brush and branches of an enormous tree, nestle little blue miracles: the bright, turquoise eggs of tricolored herons being tended to by a mating pair.
Residents have long claimed that the overgrown golf course is home to numerous endangered species, including the tricolored heron, a species native to Florida that the state lists as threatened and imperiled. But last week, husband-and wife photography duo Dennis and Victoria Horn captured what are thought to be the first images of tricolored heron eggs in a nest on the site of the approved yet still highly controversial 550-home development by developer GL Homes and landowner Facundo Bacardí of Bacardi Rum.
Now residents are eager to learn how the photographic evidence might affect the development plans. That's because they are aware that Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava issued a memorandum last November that stated, in part, "If state or federally listed bird species are determined to be utilizing the rookery, the rookery will be preserved, and the developer will be required to modify their proposed development plan."
"We're delighted that we found the tricolored herons, and I was lucky to get that shot of the eggs," Dennis Horn tells New Times, explaining that he has been shooting photos of the rookery since 2020 from the backyard of a resident whose property borders the shuttered golf course.
Though he comes equipped with a Nikon camera with a long-range telephoto lens, Horn says, he doesn't always need it: The wildlife is that close to neighboring houses.
"I've been all over the Everglades and Miami-Dade County, and there's nothing like this anywhere else here," he says. "This is a unique urban rookery right in the middle of a residential area, with all these birds breeding and nesting."
The land had a 99-year covenant that called for the golf course to remain undeveloped until 2067. But the county scrapped the covenant after Bacardí paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to homeowners whose properties bordered the golf course to induce them to nullify it. For years, residents have been fighting to keep the grounds undeveloped as one of the last remaining green spaces in an area already struggling with overcrowding and traffic.
Amanda Prieto, leader of the grassroots community group Save Calusa, tells New Times that residents saw herons nesting in the rookery last year but inspectors hired by the county and developer determined at the time there was only "suspected nesting." Now, armed with photographic evidence, the residents are anxious to hear back from Cava and the county's Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).
"This is the most exciting news!" Prieto exclaims. "This is confirmation of a state-protected species nesting in the rookery."
In an emailed statement to New Times, DERM spokesperson Tere Florin confirmed the agency's inspectors had spotted the tricolored herons, too, but went on to explain that the agency must wait until its six-month ecological survey of the site is completed in August before announcing the "next steps."
"While comprehensive survey results are not expected until the end of the nesting season, DERM staff did observe a pair of tricolored herons nesting during the last on-site evaluation conducted on April 28, 2022," Florin wites. "Concerned residents play a critical role in caring for our local environment, and any observations presented to DERM staff are independently verified to ensure the safety and protection of all local wildlife. Only upon completion of all survey activities can DERM begin to coordinate with County officials and determine the next steps within the proposed development plan and any necessary preservation of the rookery."
Meanwhile, Prieto and the Save Calusa group are suing Miami-Dade County in county circuit court, asking a judge to overturn the county's November vote to rezone the shuttered golf course to allow for the 550-home development on the grounds that endangered Florida bonneted bats roost there and that the county failed to properly advertise a rescheduled meeting last November. (Florida law and Miami-Dade County code require the government to publish a newspaper ad at least 14 days prior to a scheduled public meeting.)
Dick Norwalk, senior vice president of GL Homes, did not respond to New Times' request for comment via email on Tuesday.
In January, Norwalk told New Times that GL Homes has surveyed the property for endangered and threatened species and has not found definitive evidence of any rookeries or bonneted bat nesting.
"Environmental consultants have performed multiple surveys of all trees on the former golf course to determine if bonneted bats roost on the property. Representatives of County DERM accompanied the consultants on the most recent survey. No survey has shown any evidence of bats roosting," Norwalk stated via email in January.