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Damage to Shell Key bird habitat sparks investigation

The black skimmer is an imperiled species. Their nests on the sand, protected by state law, make them particularly vulnerable.

Times files (2004)

The black skimmer is an imperiled species. Their nests on the sand, protected by state law, make them particularly vulnerable.

Wildlife biologist Jeanne Murphy reached Shell Key Preserve last week expecting to see the nesting area of the imperiled black skimmer.

She found broken eggshells and a laughing gull feeding on remains near the shore Thursday morning, a day after film crews for Sea-Doo boats and personal watercraft were spotted in the area.

Pinellas County and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Monday began looking into accusations by environmentalists that the film crew disturbed the birds and eggs, which are protected under Florida law.

Bombardier Recreational Products of Canada, maker of the Sea-Doo brand, referred questions to Tim McKercher, a Melbourne media consultant involved in the shooting.

A film team spent about a week shooting in the area but stayed on the water or in the air, he said. A helicopter was used for aerial photography but stayed to the east of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, McKercher said.

"From my understanding, nobody was actually on Shell Key," McKercher said.

But the county has received initial reports that a video crew in a helicopter dipped down to deliver a tape to a crew in a boat, possibly getting near enough to the shore to cause damage, said Assistant County Administrator Elithia Stanfield.

Pinellas County would not release copies of the film crew's permit with the county film office, but Stanfield confirmed approval was given and said the environmental management office knew of the plans.

Shell Key, a popular spot for boaters and nature lovers, includes a bird sanctuary on an 1,800-acre preserve. Coastal development has reduced the nesting grounds of the black skimmer, pushing it to barrier islands. Their nests on the sand make them particularly vulnerable.

Shortly after discovering the scene Thursday, Murphy said she saw black skimmers milling about their nesting area. But she worries the episode will scare them off.

"They have very few areas out there that they can nest in the state," Murphy said.

Florida wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse said there are heightened penalties for harming birds considered an imperiled species, but his agency hadn't determined if there was wrongdoing in this case.

Chief Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard said he expects his staff to have a report this week. "It sounds like there was some disturbance out there, but to what order of magnitude, we don't know," Woodard said.

Shell Key Shuttle complained to the county about the incident, Stanfield said. A man at Shell Key Shuttle confirmed witnessing the advertising crew's actions but declined an interview Monday.

Lorraine Margeson, a St. Petersburg environmentalist, said the reports she has heard suggest a colony of 440 birds was destroyed as a helicopter whipped up a sandstorm.

"I thought all I needed to worry about was the gusher and the possibility of BP crews destroying our precious shorebird nesting habitat. … What a wakeup call this was," she said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Damage to Shell Key bird habitat sparks investigation 06/21/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 11:54pm]
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