DUNEDIN — From the air or sea, Three Rooker Bar looks like a sandy boomerang dotted with trees, able to offer boaters a couple of hours of picnicking or shell collecting.
But for the birds, a story of survival unfolds there. Gulls and terns are pairing up and picking nesting sites. Great blue herons already nest in the mangroves. Fish crows are practicing raids on the budding young nursery from a base camp of dead trees on the northwest shoreline.
More avian players will soon arrive, but the skies over the sandbar-turned-island already swirl with squawks and flutters and mid-air skirmishes. It's a scene going on daily at sandy islands in Tampa Bay and across Central Florida's Gulf Coast.
Bird watchers and environmentalists want to make boaters and beachgoers aware of the fragile state these birds endure during nesting season.
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"You can see little tornadoes of laughing gulls staking out their territory," points out state environmental specialist Dan Larremore, as he motors a boat piled with nesting protection signs toward the island.
Close inspection reveals royal terns, ibis and at least one pair of snowy plovers settling in. A white morph reddish egret dances in the shallows.
Expected in the coming weeks are American oystercatchers, black skimmers, Caspian and least terns, and Wilson's plovers. Larremore, who works for the Anclote Key Preserve State Park, keeps tabs on the colony.
To the southeast, in Hillsborough Bay, Audubon Florida's nesting protection season got under way Easter weekend.
A seasonal warden will patrol islands on weekends and holidays through the summer to warn boaters of the dangers tiny chicks face if their parents are frightened away and they are exposed to sun and predators, even for a few minutes.
Three of Hillsborough's islands — the Tampa Port Authority's 2-D and 3-D and the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank near the mouth of the Alafia River — have long been recognized as significant for their contributions to the world population of water birds.
Those spots are off-limits to boaters year-round, but other islands in the bay and gulf will be marked to protect nesting habitat, said Ann Paul, Audubon Florida's regional coordinator. Audubon's Coastal Islands Sanctuaries program, based in Brandon, helps protect more than 70 nesting colonies between Citrus County and Charlotte Harbor.
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Besides posted islands, people also should watch out for beach nurseries that have not been officially identified.
"If all of the sudden, they [island visitors] notice the birds are resembling something out of a Hitchcock movie, they ought to take a minute and look around," Paul said.
Nesting birds often become unusually noisy and dive-bomb people they perceive as threats, she said. If people see unmarked nests, they should back away and then report the location to Audubon at (813) 623-6826 or state park managers if the spot is inside a Florida wildlife management area.
Last year, Audubon staff counted nearly 60,000 pairs of water birds that nest in colonies, mostly on islands. About half of the 30 species represented are considered to be at some risk of extinction by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
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Three Rooker is a significant part of that, largely because it is a haven for black skimmers, Paul said. The commission lists that species as threatened with extinction because of loss of habitat.
To improve the Three Rooker birds' chances of nesting in peace, Larremore and volunteer Tom Carey of Palm Harbor are tackling the No. 1 threat: people.
At the end of March, they posted signs declaring about 18 acres in the middle of the 200-acre island off-limits from May 1 to Aug. 1, the height of the nesting season. Of the five miles of shoreline, about a quarter-mile will be a no-landing zone — for people, anyway.
Boaters can still drop anchor off the north and south ends, Larremore said, but they are encouraged to watch their step. Many shorebirds scrape out nesting areas in the sand and depend on camouflage to disguise their young from predators such as the peregrine falcon.
In past years, Larremore said, Three Rooker Bar has cradled the offspring of up to 10,000 pairs of coastal birds.
"Last year was going to be a record," he said, "and then Tropical Storm Debby came in and wiped the whole colony out."
On the other hand, four-legged predators don't swim out to the bar because there's no fresh water.
"This is a special spot," Larremore said. "Raccoons have a hard time surviving out here.
"The birds really have it to themselves, except for us."
He and other avian advocates say dogs present the biggest threat, scaring parent birds away from nests long enough for the sun to broil baby birds or for airborne predators to swoop in. Dogs are not allowed at Three Rooker Bar at any time.
Larremore also warned that the Fourth of July firework celebrations often prompt frightened adult birds to abandon their nests in the brutal heat of mid-summer.
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Birds have long made Three Rooker Bar a safe haven. Even the name has an avian origin, Larremore said, noting that it was named for the cormorant guano collected in three roosting spots and sold for fertilizer before the end of World War II.
In recent years, the island has offered a mixed habitat of mangroves for tree-nesting wading birds and sandy beaches for ground-nesting shorebirds.
Laughing gulls, those snack-snatching menaces of the beach, typically make up the lions' share of the colony and redeem themselves by aggressively fending off predators' air strikes with their signature chorus of raucous shrieks.
"I think they [other species] benefit from the chaos," Larremore said. "That chaos helps deter the fish crows and the peregrine falcons … . Gulls are good at chaos."