Thursday, November 15, 2018
News Roundup

Thousands of birds abandon eggs, nests on Florida's Seahorse Key

SEAHORSE KEY — The din created by thousands of nesting birds is usually the first thing you notice about Seahorse Key, a 150-acre mangrove-covered dune off Florida's Gulf Coast near Cedar Key and Sumner.

But in May, the key fell eerily quiet all at once.

Thousands of little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, pelicans and other chattering birds were gone. Nests sat empty in trees; eggs broken and scattered on the muddy ground.

"It's a dead zone now," said Vic Doig, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "This is where the largest bird colony on the Gulf Coast of Florida used to be."

For decades, Seahorse Key has been a protected way station for myriad bird species. It's part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, about 21 miles west northwest of Crystal River, established in 1929 as a sanctuary for birds devastated by decades of hunting for their colorful plumage. Accessible only by boat, today it's a rare island not dominated by human activity and development.

When the birds come to nest, so too do biologists and naturalists who study the different colonies. But this year, the birds' exit has the state's avian biologists scrambling for answers.

"It's not uncommon for birds to abandon nests," said Peter Frederick, a University of Florida wildlife biologist who has studied Florida's birds for nearly 30 years. "But, in this case, what's puzzling is that all of the species did it all at once."

Doig said some of the Seahorse birds seem to have moved to a nearby island, but they're just a fraction of the tens of thousands of birds that would normally be nesting on the key right now.

To find answers, service biologists have been acting on the few clues they have.

First, they tested left-behind bird carcasses for disease or contaminants. Those tests came back negative.

Next, they researched possible new predators. Did raccoons swim over from another island? Perhaps some great horned owls flew out at night and started feasting?

Traps caught a few raccoons, which is common, but not enough to have created a wholesale abandonment. There were no telltale signs of owls.

Finally, Doig said, recent years have seen an increase in night flights over the area by surveillance planes and helicopters used to combat drug runners. Although the planes' noise could be disruptive, Doig admits it's a longshot.

The abandonment concerns biologists because it could have a ripple effect: Many bird species here return year after year to the same nesting sites. The disruption provokes anxiety that this important island refuge could somehow be lost.

"Any rookery that's persisted for decades as one of the largest colonies is incredibly important," said Janell Brush, an avian researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's quite a large colony. There had to be some intense event that would drive all these birds away."

Biologists also don't know how the disappearance will affect the island's other animals, some of which rely on the birds to survive. Cottonmouth snakes eat bird predators like rodents, and in turn the birds drop lots of fish and other nutrients from the trees to feed the snakes.

In the meantime, tour operators that once spent hours taking naturalists and bird watchers to the island are making other plans.

Mike O'Dell runs tours out of the little marina in Cedar Key. He said that on a Tuesday in May, he led a group out to view thousands of birds crowding the shores of the key. On Wednesday, there was nothing.

"It's just that drastic," O'Dell said. "There were none. It's like a different world."

     
                       
Comments
Enjoy College GameDay, UCF. This is as good as it should get

Enjoy College GameDay, UCF. This is as good as it should get

ESPN's College GameDay is going to UCF this weekend.Great. Now the most delusional college football fan base in the country will become completely insufferable.Well, good for you UCF. You can hold up signs. You can boo Kirk Herbstreit. You can cheer ...
Updated: 14 minutes ago
10 things about Rays Blake Snellís Cy Young winning season

10 things about Rays Blake Snellís Cy Young winning season

LHP Blake Snell accomplished a lot in his remarkable 2018 breakout season. And wining the American League Cy Young award on Wednesday added to that list:* He became the second Ray win the most prestigious pitching award, joining David Price, who did ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Five fresh takes on green beans beyond the casserole for Thanksgiving

Five fresh takes on green beans beyond the casserole for Thanksgiving

We love a green bean casserole, but these green bean recipes are worth a spot on the table, too.
Published: 11/15/18
Times baseball writer Marc Topkin talks about ‘Twenty Years of Rays Baseball’ book

Times baseball writer Marc Topkin talks about ‘Twenty Years of Rays Baseball’ book

Covering the team long before it played its first game gave him the background to become the Rays’ historian.
Published: 11/15/18
Disney unveils plans for ‘Guardians of Galaxy’ coaster, high-tech robots

Disney unveils plans for ‘Guardians of Galaxy’ coaster, high-tech robots

At an amusement park industry trade show, a Disney executive hails the next generation of animatronics.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Buccaneers All-22: Tony Dungy wants to know what happened in the debacle against Washington. Here are the answers, coach

Buccaneers All-22: Tony Dungy wants to know what happened in the debacle against Washington. Here are the answers, coach

Stop blaming the play-caller. Dirk Koetter wasnít the reason why Tampa Bay scored only three points.
Updated: 6 hours ago
That Kate Upton tweet youíve been waiting for on Blake Snell winning AL Cy Young award

That Kate Upton tweet youíve been waiting for on Blake Snell winning AL Cy Young award

Model/actress Kate Upton had plenty to say in 2016 when then fiance Justin Verlander missed out on winning the AL Cy Young award due in part to the votes of the two Tampa Bay writers, posting an extraordinarily profane, and extremely memorable, tweet...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Raysí Blake Snell wins AL Cy Young award

Raysí Blake Snell wins AL Cy Young award

ST. PETERSBURG – Blake Snell first started thinking about it at the end of last season, then more as spring training drew near. He shared first with teammate Chris Archer on the phone, then later with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder over a Janu...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Softball stars Callie Turner, Alexis Kilfoyl sign together

Softball stars Callie Turner, Alexis Kilfoyl sign together

Alexis Kilfoyl was set to have the spotlight all to herself when she signed with Alabama on Wednesday.The Academy at the Lakes senior, one of the top softball pitchers in the nation, planned on being the only one to deliver a speech in the school's g...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Wesley Chapel toddler fell into pool, rushed to hospital

Wesley Chapel toddler fell into pool, rushed to hospital

The incident took place in the 30600 block of Tremont Drive. The boy was reported to in critical condition.
Updated: 8 hours ago