INDIAN SHORES — Sunrise was an hour and a half away when Beth Forys and a troupe of volunteers, students and wildlife experts parked their cars in a lot on Gulf Boulevard. They strolled through the humid night across the street to the beach, home to a colony of threatened seabirds called black skimmers.
Forys, an environmental science and biology professor at Eckerd College, was leading the conservation team of about 15 on its first of four trips along the Gulf to place bands on the skimmers.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) upgraded the seabird's status from "species of special concern" to "threatened" in January, a decision based on declining population and habitat range.
"It's a very complicated process," said Forys, who was part of the team that recommended the change. "Now there are more enhanced protections for the skimmers. They suffered significant decline, to the point where they really need those protections."
Data on skimmer populations is limited, but during the 2010 breeding season, the largest colony had 450 pairs, according to unpublished data from Forys. In the late 1970s, the largest colony contained more than double that figure."
Courtesy of Marianne Korosy
Banding allows conservationists to keep track of individual birds, giving them valuable information about movement, survival rates and breeding behavior — all in efforts to help stabilize their population.
Bird banding is a grassroots operation of sorts, Forys explained, because most wildlife agencies lack the money and resources to perpetually monitor banded populations. There is a type of code among the birding community, including amateur birders, to record and photograph banded birds and report the info back to professionals.
The banding process itself requires the expertise of several experienced birders working together in a sort of assembly-line fashion. The first job — catching the birds — is for the "young athletic folks," said Clearwater Audubon president John Hood.
Forys' field research technician, recent Eckerd graduate Jo Campo, hoisted what looked like a large butterfly net as she circled the outside of the colony. No one entered the nesting area, which was roped off to prevent beachgoers from disturbing the colony.
Campo and a few other volunteers used their nets to herd the juvenile skimmers out of the enclosed area. The small gray and white birds scurried across the sand, their legs shuffling rapidly until they got scooped up in a net. Campo and the others carried the birds to the rest of the group, which sat around a blanket protected from the wind by a small tent.
Courtesy of Karen Hand Mason
There, Hood and a few other birders worked together to measure the length of each bird's legs, wings and bill. The bands went on the bird's leg, secured by glue. Then Forys would place the bird in a small bag and measure its weight, before releasing it back into the colony.
The whole time, concerned skimmer parents circled the area, their short, barking calls a constant source of background noise.
The most distinct feature of black skimmers is their long, thin red and black bills, which make for highly efficient fishing tools. Skimming along the ocean surface, they drag their lower mandible through the water in search of fish.
Skimmers are among the local bird species that nest on open beach area. The population has suffered in recent years, Forys said, in part because of Pinellas County's growing population density. Many of the skimmers' predators — crows, raccoons, opossums — thrive with increased human activity.
The birds also have been decimated at times by changing environmental conditions such as rising tides and earlier tropical storms that now may overlap with nesting season. (Birds nesting in sand dunes farther from the water have fared better.)
Courtesy of Beth Forys
"Now we're seeing even casual high tides can overwash a colony," Forys said. "Because even though it's only been a couple centimeters (of sea level) that we've gained, if you are nesting on a beach, just even like 5 centimeters or even 2 centimeters can be the difference between your eggs being okay vs. your eggs being saturated or washed away."
Last year, banding helped uncover the mystery of a large skimmer die-off, when upwards of 40 birds went into convulsions and died along St. Pete Beach. At least one dead skimmer had salmonella, Forys said.
Conservationists suspected municipal sewage dumping into the adjacent Boca Ciega Bay caused the deaths. Forys was able to confirm that the skimmers — many of which were banded — all came from the St. Pete Beach colony. Meanwhile, banded birds from the Indian Shores colony were fine.
"We can't 100 percent link it to all the sewage that they were foraging in, but it was highly coincidental," said Forys, who also found that some of the banded birds had lost half their body weight — information that would have been unavailable from unmarked birds.
Skimmers and terns, a similar seabird Forys has also studied, have been hit hard. But she continues to show up for bird banding sessions at 5 a.m. because it's one of the best shots left to help revitalize the population.
"I have always wanted to try to preserve as much native biodiversity as possible," she said. "That's my No. 1 goal: 'How can I stabilize a species?' To make the population stable, we have to understand them — and understand if what we're doing is working. So we're putting a lot of effort into protecting these birds."