TALLAHASSEE — Audubon Florida recently honored five conservation leaders as part of its annual Assembly event on October 26-28, 2023. For decades, Audubon Florida has gathered its staff, members, partners, and other stakeholders under one roof for a celebration of the year’s accomplishments and a look ahead at coming priorities. The three-day event, hosted at the Tampa Sheraton Brandon hotel, was the first completely in-person Assembly since 2019.
The Everglades Champion Award is given for bold action on behalf of the Everglades or continuous leadership on behalf of Everglades restoration and the recovery of Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries. Mark Cook, PhD, was named Everglades Champion for 2023. As section leader of the Systemwide Everglades Research Group with the South Florida Water Management District, Cook’s work as an avian ecologist and scientist has informed important water management and restoration decisions for the benefit of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem for more than 20 years. Specifically, his research involves understanding how wading bird populations respond to wetland hydrologic conditions and nutrient levels, as well as evaluating the potential impacts of non-native species. Cook works closely with many members of the Audubon science team and is considered a trusted advisor, collaborator, and leader in wading bird science.
The Special Places Award is given to someone who makes an extraordinary effort to protect the places that make Florida special. Audubon chose Joe Earl Collins, II, for the 2023 award. Collins worked as an agricultural engineer for 32 years and was senior vice president for Lykes Brothers, Inc. where his modern citrus farm design embraced a vision of growing crops while also preserving wetlands and native ground cover in ways that protect environmental values. With his leadership, Lykes Brothers has pioneered private-public water storage and cleaning projects in Lake Okeechobee’s watershed. Lykes has some of the largest and most successful projects that not only are helping Florida’s water issues, but setting an example for how landowners can help solve our problems and derive income in the process. Collins, who also served as chair of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, unexpectedly passed away earlier this year. His award was received posthumously by family members.
The Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award is given to an officer who has demonstrated that protecting wildlife is more than a job, but a moral obligation, and has made significant contributions to protecting Florida’s wildlife either within or above the course of their regular duty. This year’s award went to Lt. Michael Bibeau with Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Lt. Bibeau has played an important role in ensuring shorebird protection on Pinellas County beaches during busy holidays. Over the past two summers, he had officers stationed at all sites with active breeding birds to enforce protections and support volunteer bird stewards. This year, he invited Audubon Florida staff to attend meetings to coordinate holiday law enforcement coverage. Lt. Bibeau has earned the respect of staff and volunteers and continuously demonstrates his dedication to bird conservation.
The Guy Bradley Award recognizes an individual for stewardship in the face of threats to birds and their habitats and a relentless commitment to conserving Florida’s wildlife. Audubon selected Janell Brush to receive this year’s award for her outstanding dedication to the protection of Florida’s shorebirds and seabirds and their habitats. As an avian research biologist for Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Brush’s commitment is demonstrated through her more than 20 years leading avian research and conservation projects in Florida. Her impact on bird conservation in Florida is epitomized in her leadership role in launching the Florida Shorebird Program, which is recognized well beyond the Sunshine State for its success in engaging local partnerships and using data informed management to drive cost-effective recovery of the focal species. Brush engages in multiple regional and national species and technical working groups where she plays instrumental roles in guiding conservation strategies for birds. Her relentless drive and support for her team set an example for all those involved in conservation.
The Volunteer of the Year Award is given to an individual who has a history of exhibiting exemplary dedication to birds and the places they need and who consistently goes above and beyond in their service to conservation. This year’s award went to Wendy Meehan. Meehan has been a shorebird steward and rooftop monitor for more than 17 years in the Tampa Bay area, where she became involved in St. Petersburg Audubon Society. In recent years, Meehan has embraced Rooftop Monitoring opportunities and assists Audubon staff with resighting banded birds of many species, providing valuable data on an almost daily basis to avian researchers. She is instrumental to the Black Skimmer banding project at Eckerd College, and is always ready to help, even at a moment’s notice.
With a theme of “Conservation in a Changing Landscape,” Audubon Florida’s 2023 Assembly demonstrated innovative ways to protect birds and the places they need, today and in the future, through learning sessions, field trips, and presentations. The event was generously sponsored by Publix, Florida Power & Light Company, Duke Energy, Ferber Company, TECO, Mosaic, Vortex, Suncoast Credit Union, and Disney. Find more information at Fl.Audubon.org/Assembly.