For hundreds of black skimmer birds nesting on a little strip of beach just outside the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Fourth of July festivities are always chaotic.
Firecrackers streak through the sky, popping overhead. Adult skimmers get startled by the sound, darting into the trees and leaving their nests unprotected.
In the confusion, some of the newborns scuttle into nearby crowds of partying beachgoers. Others stay put in their nests in the sand, helpless prey for waiting pelicans.
"It's all very unsettling," said Bonnie Jenks, a volunteer at the St. Petersburg Audubon Society. "The poor things don't know what to do when their parents aren't there."
To help protect the skimmers during the July 4 festivities this weekend, the St. Petersburg Audubon Society and Clearwater Audubon Society are hiring off-duty police officers to patrol the skimmer nesting colonies at Indian Shores and Sand Key.
But they're one officer short, and the bird activists are hoping they will be able to find one last off-duty cop who isn't booked for the holiday weekend, said Marianne Korosy, a biologist with Audubon of Florida.
While local volunteers called "bird stewards" help patrol the beaches, they often need the authority of a law enforcement officer to coax revelers - especially the tipsy or belligerent ones - to move their parties and their fireworks further from the roped-off bird colonies, said Jenks, who will be patrolling the bird colonies Sunday.
And the sound of fireworks isn't the only threat to the birds on the holiday weekend. Smoldering bits of cardboard can float down and land in a nest. Even a tiny bit of pyrotechnic chemicals can be harmful to the birds if ingested. Sometimes, Korosy said, kids will aim the fireworks at the skimmer colony, just to watch all the birds scatter at once.
Having licensed enforcement officers on the scene should help cut down on all those problems, she said.
"When people start to set up their fireworks," Korosy said, "they're going to be as far away from the birds as we can get them."
Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com and (727) 445-4224.
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How to help
Interested in patrolling the bird colonies this weekend or other times as a volunteer? Call Saskia Janes of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society at (727) 329-9910.