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  1. Environment

Celebrating the Fourth on St. Pete Beach? Give black skimmers a break.

Black skimmer chicks with their mother on St. Pete Beach. The second largest colony in Florida — about 600 birds — is nesting on the beach, and volunteers are gearing up to protect the colony during Thursday’s Fourth of July celebrations. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Jul. 1

ST. PETE BEACH — Beth Forys has spent more than a decade observing black skimmers, a threatened bird whose population has declined for years. That means the Eckerd College professor of environmental science and biology has had to observe a lot of humans, too.

There was the time in 2012 when a stray Roman candle exploded in the middle of a nesting colony on Sunset Beach and blew off the leg of a skimmer. In 2015, a 14-year-old ran through a colony on a dare — right in front of deputies. It's illegal to disrupt the birds, but the boy was only given a warning.

"We've had people pass out drunk next to the colony," she said. Two years ago she found a homeless woman sleeping next to the colony. Two days later, she found a homeless man.

The most dangerous threat, though, is fireworks. They can startle the birds and cause the adults to abandon their chicks, leaving them unprotected.

That is why volunteers will be out in force on Thursday, just as they are every Fourth of July.

They'll put up a fence around the colony of 600 birds nesting along the beach behind the Lido Condos at 4450 Gulf Blvd. and spend the evening trying to keep revelers from disrupting the cycle of raising chicks that has been taking place since May.

This is the second-largest nesting colony in Florida this year. The official count is 510 breeding birds forming 255 nests. Its survival will help ensure the future of the species, said Forys, who has been monitoring the birds since 2002. There are only 25 colonies in the state this year.

Black skimmers are classified as a threatened species by Florida and they're also protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It's illegal to disturb them or to disrupt the natural process of hatching eggs and raising chicks. It's a felony to intentionally kill them.

"They are vulnerable to people, pets and predators," said Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Melody Kilborn.

Forys works with a group of volunteers who educate the public on the beach about the nests and try to "prevent bad things from happening" to the chicks. They installed their own "chick crossing" signs, put up wooden shelters because chicks need shade on the hot beach and during peak hours send volunteers to warn people about the colony.

Black skimmers face all kinds of threats on the beach. They nest in large colonies to ward off potential threats like gulls or crows that want to eat the chicks or eggs. And humans — well-intentioned or not — can be problematic as well.

Forys said "99 percent of people are really approachable," about being told to watch out for the birds. They're receptive when told, for example, to keep their beach balls away.

But sometimes young children or adults looking to take selfies will run through the nest.

"It becomes a big deal when there are little chicks on the ground," Forys said. "They're brown and blend into the sand and sometimes sit in a hole."

Complicating the situation is that the colony is partially on private property, namely the condo tower. It's actually a decent place to raise the chicks, Forys' said, because it's just out of the way enough to give the birds a buffer from humans.

Pinellas County tried an experiment this year, installing bird decoys in two locations to try to get the skimmers to nest in those locations, further away from humans. It only worked on one nesting pair. They had three chicks, but only one survived. Then on June 14, when the chick was big enough, it followed its parents to the main colony, spending the day waddling through beach-goers as Eckerd students watched.

It's just the second time in nearly 20 years studying the birds that one has nested alone, said Forys,

The black skimmers' population needs a break. The birds have undergone a "significant" population decline since the 1970s, she said, because on top of everything else threatening them, they also have less undisturbed habitat to themselves.

The birds lay about one egg per day for four or five days. The chicks emerge after roughly three weeks. The birds share parental duties, taking turns incubating — or sitting — on the eggs.

Once born, the chicks cannot fly for three to four weeks. But if anything happens to the eggs, the nesting birds will lay and incubate another one, extending the cycle.

What happens after they fly away? About half will likely return to this same spot next year, Forys said, and start the cycle anew — but that's only if the adult birds stick with their chicks in the coming weeks.

"If they abandon their chicks, they're not going to make it," said Audubon Florida's Holley Short.

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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