The reception committee wore red caps and feathers. They lined the narrow road leading to Serenoa Golf Club and, despite an approaching car and a flock of golfers putting on the green beyond, the committee of six sandhill cranes stood their ground like an honor guard at a parade. These residents were clearly on home turf.
"They’re like pets," says Dan Hall Jr., Serenoa’s golf course superintendent. He’s not kidding. Serenoa is one of a growing number of courses around the country that welcomes wildlife as warmly as golfers.
For years, many environmentalists considered golf courses anything but green. From the chemicals they sprayed to the native animals they displaced, golf courses were seen as intrusions into unspoiled nature. But today’s new courses are more environmentally friendly. With ever increasing urbanization, golf courses now offer some of the last open spaces for animals and a unique opportunity to create wildlife habitats. And developers have come to recognize that residents value natural beauty and wildlife.
"We do market nature as an amenity," says Karen Childress, environmental stewardship manager at WCI Communities, a luxury residential developer in Florida that is building Waterlefe in Manatee County and the Residences of The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota. Childress says WCI has entered into an agreement with Audubon International to build 10 communities around Florida that encourage environmental and conservation practices. WCI reminds residents of this commitment, placing signs on courses that describe environmental features and, at one course, using the GPS system on golf carts to provide data on environmental information at each hole.
The United States Golf Association has also jumped on the bandwagon, endorsing the Audubon program that certifies courses as good places for wildlife. Such courses lower the decibel level of golf carts, build shelves into lakes to filter water and plant aquatic grasses to provide nesting areas and food for waterfowl.
"Golf courses have a bad rap," says Serenoa’s Hall, "but they’re not the bad things you’ve read about. All of us involved as golf superintendents get into golf to establish a quality environment."
The golf cart bounces over the rough at Serenoa Golf Club as Hall heads toward one of the lakes where a sandhill crane has built her nest. Hall is not just the golf course superintendent, he’s paterfamilias to Serenoa’s wildlife. In his deep Southern accent, he ticks off dozens of species that live at Serenoa; and, like a proud father, he brags about their habits and personalities. The eagles, he says, are exemplary parents, bringing their fledgling to the lake where mom and dad teach their youngster to fish, dine and take an after-meal dip in the lake.
"All the wetlands were built when they built the course," he says. "The birds just came in. In fact, golf courses are bringing blue birds that have been gone for years back to Florida."
Around a bend, Hall’s cart slows and the lake appears. "Why, bless her heart," Hall chuckles when he sees the sandhill crane nest. "The chicks have hatched!"
At the Tournament Players Club in Prestancia, golf superintendent Mark Johnson is equally enthusiastic about the six eagles that have adopted Prestancia as their territory. "One flies right down the No. 9 fairway from the woods, 10 feet off the ground, every morning at 7 o’clock and swoops over the clubhouse," he says.
But the fairways aren’t what attract wildlife. Animals and birds return because of water, says Johnson. That’s why conserving water and providing dedicated wetlands are vital. And not just any water will do. Wild creatures are fussy and know what’s good for them; the water must be clean and offer appropriate areas for nesting and food. "Golf course managers were truly the first conservationists and environmentalists and the first persons to recognize that without water we don’t have a job," says Hall.
In Prestancia, the water is so clear golfers can see the doughnut-shaped beds the fish make in the mud for their eggs. Each one has a fat mama bass in the center. At another lake, a cormorant pops his head out of the water. The cormorants are carnivorous, feeding on fish that, in turn, feed on algae. As he watches the bird, Johnson says, "Anytime you see a carnivorous bird like a cormorant you know you’ve got good water." But cormorants and other species wouldn’t exist on golf courses if pesticides or fertilizers in the water destroyed the delicate ecosystem.
The public might be surprised to discover that to maintain water quality, golf courses are required by the EPA and Department of Agriculture to minimize pesticide and fertilizer use. Only "non-restricted" chemicals are permitted, and waterways are designated as no-spray zones. "We only use pesticides when necessary-and no indiscriminate spraying for prevention," says Hall of Serenoa. TPC’s Johnson asserts that golf course regulations are more stringent than for almost any other use-even in the home. "They use warning labels all over the chemicals under your kitchen sink, but not one of the labels in my shed has a warning label-the LD-50 level [a scientific number based on the amount of pesticide that would endanger a mouse] is so low."
As pristine and manicured as golf courses appear, those that attract wildlife are actually kept a little messy. Superintendents deliberately leave dead tree limbs, fallen pine trees, and other debris for natural habitats that provide food and shelter for animals and birds. Serenoa added more than 2,500 trees, including palms, oaks and holly trees. Hall is happy to report that "The palm fruit, seeds and berries are for birds and they love them."
The TPC at Prestancia set aside 565 acres for natural areas. The largest of the sections runs along the entire 15th and 16th green to the 17th tee. It’s home to foxes, wild turkey, deer, bald eagles, osprey, sandhill cranes, and ducks, including the small, ornate whistler ducks.
Childress of WCI says sometimes the profusion of wildlife gets messy, just as in nature. Deer, hawks and other birds occasionally share the Venetian Golf and River Club in Venice with feral pigs. Yes, it can be a problem, she says, "but we’re all trying to get along."
The Legacy Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch is home to an enormous 10-foot-plus alligator that likes to sun itself on the No. five tee box. Denny Albert, course superintendent, says, "He’s been around a couple years. There are two lakes there and he crosses the fairway to get from one to the other but he likes to lie on the bank in the afternoons."
At Waterlefe, more than a hundred different species call the golf course home, according to superintendent David Williamson. "I’m most fond of a fox that seems to be following us around. Of course, I’m hoping no one is feeding him. But it’s neat to see him up close."
A moorhen just had babies on the course. "They don’t know to run away so you can get close accidentally," says Williamson. "One day I was working on an irrigation system and there they were; those little babies were just a black ball of fuzz with a red top knot."
Williamson is also a director of the Manatee County Audubon Society and is proud that his course is "one step from certification as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary." Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) provides environmental education and conservation aid to golf course superintendents and industry professionals. Since 1991, the United States Golf Association has sponsored the golf course program, helping to underwrite the cost of technical information and support design that enhance the natural beauty, reduce water use, encourage natural habitats and develop outreach strategies.
Peter Bronski, staff ecologist for the Audubon Program, says, "One of the hallmarks of the ACSP for golf courses is that it is entirely voluntary, so Audubon International generally has the benefit of working with golf courses that have a mutual desire to work with us. Many superintendents are very interested in being good environmental stewards, and often are already taking many positive steps for the environment on their respective golf course. The ACSP is an avenue to help them achieve their goals and ultimately receive recognition for their efforts."
More than 2,300 golf courses in all 50 states, Canada and, more recently, around the world are registered in the program. Those that demonstrate achievement in six environmental categories achieve Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status. To date the United States has 329 Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries, and the program is expanding worldwide with 47 in other countries. Bronski notes, "The ACSP came about through a recognition that golf courses, in addition to being the focus of intense scrutiny over concerns about water consumption and chemical use, also present enormous opportunities for positive environmental impacts."
The program is a major initiative of the Tournament Players Clubs. Of 23 TPC clubs, 18 are certified already, including the TPC course at Prestancia, the only Sarasota course to be fully certified. Robert Norton, general manager of the Tournament Players Club at Prestancia, says, "The tour wanted to do it because it’s the right thing to do." He says the reasoning is simple. "We like to grow turf, trees, flowers and want to do it with birds and animals that are attracted to them."
River Wilderness in Parrish is also part of the Audubon program.
The certification procedure is rigorous. "It’s not just raising your hand and saying ‘I want to be certified,’" says Norton. "There’s a lot of documentation required." He pushes a blue binder forward on his desk. It’s four inches thick, tabbed with the six required focus areas, and jammed with paperwork. And Mark Johnson adds, "The fastest I’ve ever heard of anyone being certified is three years."
For the most part, nature is left to sustain itself, leading to surprises-like the time Dan Hall Jr. rounded a maintenance shed and came face to face with a bobcat. "We both stood stock still, then he very elegantly sauntered off as though he owned the place," says Hall.
Occasionally, humans lend a helping hand when called for. Serenoa has a close relationship with the Pelican Man Bird Sanctuary. "We contact them when sandhill cranes get hurt by golf balls," says Hall. "One of our female yearling deer had a broken leg and we sent her there, and she came back after she healed."
Some residents along the golf courses say that their backyard views of a nature preserve played a large part in their choice of home. At Prestancia, Rita Pfeiffer says, "We sit on our lanai and look out at the preserve. I’ve seen egrets, a deer, a bobcat!"
Dr. Chuck Holmes, president of Prestancia’s board of governors, picked his home especially for the natural environment. "I’m on a lake that borders a nature preserve. It’s a panorama." He even donated five wood duck boxes to encourage the fussy waterfowl to nest along the golf course. "It worked," he says, "We have several pairs now."
"Our sandhill cranes are lifers," says Robert Norton. "They stay here to nest." So do the human residents. As Pfeiffer says, "It’s the perfect way to live."
Golfers, tuck a nature guide in your cart. Here’s a list of the wildlife attracted by Florida golf courses.
Robins in season
Cedar wax wings
Blue indigo snakes
Yellow Florida rat snakes
Orange banded snakes
Green-striped box turtles
Soft shell turtles
Great gray herons
Small blue herons
Mexican fluvius white or brown-bellied ducks
Mexican black-bellied whistling ducks
Orange fox squirrels
Black fox squirrels
Golden wing anhingas
Black wing anhingas