Least terns floated like dandelions above Beth Forys. Maybe they were flying willy-nilly for the fun of it. Maybe something had them on edge, which made more sense to the Eckerd College scientist. It can't be fun being a least tern in the 21st century, with oil coming ashore on the Gulf of Mexico beaches where the delicate balls of white fluff prefer to build their nests.
Forys, 43, wondered how least terns manage to survive under the best of circumstances. Really, can there be a worse place to build a nest than on the crowded playground of sun worshippers, Frisbee tossers and beach-cleaning machines? Listed as a threatened species by the state of Florida, least terns and their olive-sized eggs hardly stand a chance as it is.
But the small white birds with pointy wings have some things going for them. In Florida, especially in wilderness-unfriendly Pinellas County, they have learned over the decades to substitute flat gravel roofs for beach-and-sand nurseries. And Forys and a small army of volunteers watch over the urban terns like ferocious mama birds.
"There's one," Forys said, springing to her feet and grabbing her butterfly net. A least tern chick had just tumbled off the roof of the Ulmerton Industrial Mart, a giant warehouse located on what may be the busiest eyesore road in Florida's most densely populated county.
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She nabbed the chick, reached into the net and gently removed it. Leaning against her car, Forys measured its bill and wings, recorded the data in a journal and wrapped an identifying band around a leg.
Next she placed the chirping tern into a little box at the end of her trusty chick-a-boom, a weird contraption built from aluminum, plastic pipe, string, magnets and an empty orange juice carton. The chick-a-boom is tall enough and light enough for Forys to lift a bird to the roof. She tugged a string, the box opened and the chick was returned to its parents.
The Ulmerton Industrial Mart is among dozens of buildings from Pinellas to Charlotte County used every spring and summer by least terns desperate to raise their young. While students read in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg library, least terns feed chicks on the roof above. They nest atop neighborhood pharmacies and supermarkets, gas stations and florists.
An adventurous chick that falls from a roof usually starves, dies under a tire or ends up in the belly of a cat. Forys and her team of 300 Suncoast Seabird Partnership volunteers save the birds from those fates when they can. If they catch a baby, they usually can return it to the roof.
Not long ago, volunteer Pat Edmond, brandishing her net, was chasing a determined chick across a Publix parking lot on Indian Rocks Road.
"LET IT BE!" yelled a disgusted shopper, certain that the gray-haired woman was hunting for a novelty supper.
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Growing up near San Francisco Bay, Forys was no stranger to shorebirds. But as a kid she wanted to work with monkeys. She ended up studying rice rats for her master's degree in Virginia, where lowlights included the time somebody shot out her car's window because she had complained about rodent-eating cats. She got a University of Florida doctorate studying marsh rabbits in the mangrove jungles of the Keys. A lowlight included the time somebody saw her dressed in scruffy field-work attire, dirty and bug-bitten, and reported her as a homeless trespasser. Forys barely minded. After all, she was doing what she loved in one of North America's only tropical forests.
On a recent morning at the Ulmerton Industrial Mart, as she netted another tern chick, a garbage truck stopped and emptied a trash bin. A cardboard coffee cup blew across the parking and came to rest against the drab building. Above the urban landscape, among the groaning air conditioners and satellite dishes, least terns treated the 30,000-square-foot roof like Coney Island.
Adults are about 9 inches long and have a wingspan of about 20 inches. Feathers are mostly white and gray with a touch of black. In the spring, a male brings a fish to the female to seal the courtship. She lays one to three eggs in a small scrape on the sand or roof gravel. The parents take turns incubating eggs and foraging for food.
The eggs hatch in about three weeks. As the tern chicks mature, they wander the beach or roof like drunken teenagers watched by at least one anxious parent. Predators include crows and hawks and anything with legs or wheels. Forys once plopped down on the sand at Indian Rocks to prevent a beach-cleaning machine from running over least tern nests.
Sometimes, at the end of a day, Forys is laced by bird droppings. As she tends to a fallen chick, a parent swoops over her head and lets loose. Customers who call upon merchants inside the mart to buy auto supplies, party favors and tools sometimes return to find splattered cars. In the name of least tern public relations, Forys asks her volunteers to wash the dirty vehicles.
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Shorebirds that nest on beaches live under constant threat even on the most remote islands. On Boca Ciega Bay earlier this month, a helicopter crew filming a television commercial at Shell Key rousted a colony of breeding black skimmers. At the Ulmerton Industrial Mart recently, a tenant decided to do something about the leaky patch of roof above his business. At the time, more than 300 terns were scrambling to raise about as many chicks. The tenant — he had never repaired a roof before — poured liquid tar on a small section of gravel. Within the hour tar-covered least terns began raining into the parking lot.
On the ground, volunteers could only watch in panic.
Just then a truck rolled up with Brian Pinmonti, 49, behind the wheel. He was hot, tired and dehydrated from a day of fixing roofs. He is employed by Hanco Roofing Services, which has an office in the Ulmerton Industrial Mart. The grizzled workman climbed the ladder and in a matter of minutes executed the proper repair of the roof in a way that benefited terns.
Forys followed him up. Tern parents by the dozens already had died in the tar pit, dooming their offspring. She rescued 10 chicks. At the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary hospital, eight chicks survived and were returned to the colony.
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Sometime in the next month least terns that have managed to raise young — on beach or roof — will gather in large, chirping numbers somewhere along the shore. In the pandemonium parent birds will try to teach fledglings how to catch fish and survive.
Many won't. Something will eat them. Somebody will step on them or drive over them. On July 4, many beach towns will hold fireworks shows and some parent birds will abandon their chicks at the first explosion.
But nature will still take its course. Least terns that have survived civilization will sense something — maybe the smell of the air or the angle of the light — that will tell them it is time to leave.
They will rise in large, swirling clouds of white and gray, fly in unison and turn left toward their destination, probably coastal South America.
Florida won't see the 1.5-ounce birds until next year, if we are lucky. Every year there seems to be fewer of them.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.