It started as an idea.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson and ranger Jim Wilson first proposed the notion of a floating dock for the tiny least terns at the December meeting of the Suncoast Shorebird Partnership.
Now they're about to see if that idea, turned into reality by volunteers, will float — and serve as a spot for the bird to nest. It's the reason Wilson has been collecting and reassembling materials from a 2001 refurbishment of the docks at Fort De Soto Park.
The result — a 16- by 24-foot floating dock covered in gravel and sand at Fort De Soto Park — was completed over the weekend. Named Le bateau d'amour de Laridae, which refers to the family of birds to which the least tern belongs, it is intended to lure the species that since the 1950s has made its home on gravel rooftops around St. Petersburg. As those rooftops have disappeared, the terns' numbers have dwindled, from 52 measured colonies in 2002 to just 18 in 2009.
Wilson hopes the dock will bring them back.
"What I've seen in this conservation area is, if you build it, they will come," he said. "They've gotten into a pattern of knowing this is a safe zone."
As he spoke, American oystercatchers tended their eggs and least terns worked through their peculiar scratching-and-nesting ritual nearby. If other terns nest on the dock, they in theory will benefit from it rising and falling with the tide.
"About a year ago we had serious discussions about losing bird populations through overwash," Margeson of the Shorebird Partnership said. "If we have a water event, the raft would float up with the water."
The partnership performs as many as seven "chick checks" on rooftops and works to protect birds through its beach steward program. Despite those efforts, the tern population declined from 3,400 in 2003 to 1,600 in 2009. The dock is the group's latest idea.
"It's a whole big picture thing," Margeson said. "This raft is coming into play as an idea, an experiment that may or may not work."
Among those pushing for its success is Dr. Beth Forys, an Eckerd College conservation biologist who works with the Audubon Society and land managers. Forys said seven decoys would be interspersed on the float to attract the birds.
"This is an experiment to see who's going to use the raft," she said. "Will it just become a pelican perch? We know there are birds (terns) in that area that are ready to nest."
She lauded Wilson and Fort De Soto Park for taking the initiative to help the birds. A nonprofit group, the Friends of Fort De Soto, is picking up any additional costs.
"It's this type of grass-roots effort, if you will, to get everybody working for a common goal that's come so far," Wilson said. "If this is a viable option, it could open up a lot of success to nesting and give resource managers an option as opposed to closing beach areas to people."