Red Tide takes toll on imperiled species of birds, but volunteers try to save them

Published September 25
Updated September 25

Melissa Dollard gently laid the dead bird on a counter Tuesday and began writing down information about it — size, weight, conditions, what treatment it received after being poisoned by Red Tide.

She had to do this because it’s a red knot, classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So far 18 knots have landed in her care at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. This one didn’t make it.

"We were trying very hard to pull him through, but these guys are very fragile," said Dollard, the sanctuary’s avian hospital director. "We do our best but we cannot save them all."

BACKGROUND: Your questions about Red Tide’s attack on Pinellas County answered (w/video).

Dollard, a Florida native, has seen plenty of Red Tide blooms in her life, but nothing like this one, which has landed 40 birds at the sanctuary so far.

"This year is the worst I’ve ever seen it," she said. "I’m really shocked it’s continued this long."

Most of the birds that have been poisoned by the algae bloom’s brevetoxins are common ones, such as laughing gulls and brown pelicans.

RELATED: Red Tide endangers more than sea life. Birds are latest victims.

But on Friday, the sanctuary received 16 red knots, the largest sandpiper species in North America, and on Monday volunteers brought in two more. This time of year, more than a thousand red knots often wind up on the beaches between St. Pete Beach and Sand Key

The sick knots were unable to stand, walk, fly or hold their heads up to eat or take water.

The birds get sick from eating fish or other marine life that had been killed by the Red Tide toxins. The poison attacks their nervous system or digestive system.

The sick ones are easy to spot, said Holley Short, project manager for bird stewardship for Audubon’s Tampa Bay chapter.

"They can’t support themselves," she said. "They’re not behaving the way birds on a beach normally would. They’re not able to control their movements."

To treat the sanctuary’s 40 birds — a number that includes six brown pecans, four cormorants, nine laughing gulls, a sandwich tern, a ruddy turnstone and a semipalmated sandpiper — Dollard and a team of volunteers administer a sophisticated avian formula which provides nutrition and a cocktail of activated charcoal and colestyramine to help the birds’ organs filter out the toxins.

The red knot that didn’t recover was emaciated, she said, suggesting the toxins had attacked its gastrointestinal tract. Because it’s an imperiled species, Dollard said, she had to "bag it and tag it" to send it to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers in Gainesville to study it.

RELATED:Clues to combating Red Tide are found in mounting manatee carcasses.

Similar efforts are underway to study the nearly 150 manatees that have died of suspected Red Tide poisoning, the approximately 400 sea turtles killed by it and the 62 dolphins done in by the algae.

"I think there’s a lot to learn from this event," she said. She said she’s hopeful that whatever scientists learn from the massive number of deaths during this Red Tide will help combat future Red Tides.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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