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Red Tide endangers more than sea life. Birds are latest victims

A seagull picks a dead pin fish out of the water. The effects of Red Tide are seen at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Saturday, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of fish were dead on the beach. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published Sep. 17, 2018

One recent morning, Elizabeth Forys saw a strange sight on St. Pete Beach.

The Eckerd College biology professor was visiting to check on the condition of certain seabirds as a Red Tide algae bloom rolled into Pinellas County's iconic beaches. She saw a laughing gull just sitting on the sand, and she walked up to it. Instead of flying away, it didn't move, not even when someone came to pick it up.

As with other birds she'd seen staggering around as if they had vertigo, she suspects the gull was poisoned by Red Tide.

RELATED: Red Tide's toxic toll — your questions answered (w/video).

Amid all the talk of the wildlife killed by Red Tide this year — eels, snook, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles — seabirds and shore birds are frequently left out.

But they're suffering as well, to the point that wildlife rehabilitation experts are on the lookout for ailing birds. They are particularly searching for the ones that are supposed to be protected by state and federal law, such as black skimmers, least terns, snowy plovers, oystercatchers and red knots.

"We're really worried about the red knots," said Lorraine Margeson, an avid birder who monitors nesting behavior at For DeSoto. She noted that this time of year, more than a thousand often wind up on the beaches between St. Pete Beach and Sand Key.

RELATED: When will Red Tide on Florida's west coast go away? It's anyone's guess.

The birds that get sick appear to fall ill after eating the dead fish killed by Red Tide. The algae's toxins collect in their avian bodies and affect their neurological and digestive systems.

Sometimes the poison is fatal. Forys said four snowy plovers died on Lido Key near Sarasota, all apparently killed by Red Tide. She said that's an unheard of number of simultaneous deaths for that species, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The hardest hit area appeared to be Sarasota. There, a wildlife rehabilitation facility called Save Our Seabirds took in 45 sick birds in a single morning, said Melissa Dollard, avian hospital director for the Seashore Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. Dollard said she's hoping her facility doesn't get that many Red Tide patients in such a short space of time.

"We've gotten about 20 birds so far that are presenting with Red Tide symptoms," Dollard said.

RELATED: Many popular Pinellas beaches remain unscathed by Red Tide

The ones most commonly affected are the laughing gulls, she said, but the sanctuary has also cared for a pair of cormorants, a ruddy turnstone and a few pelicans, among other species.

Treating them involves giving them food that's not tainted by Red Tide, providing fluids to flush out the toxins and sometimes treating them with activated charcoal, which helps purge the Red Tide, Dollard said. Usually they're fine after seven to 10 days of treatment, she said.

The sick ones are easy to spot, said Holley Short, project manager for bird stewardship for Audubon's Tampa Bay chapter.

"They can't support themselves," she said. "They're not behaving the way birds on a beach normally would. They're not able to control their movements."

RELATED: Red Tide's impact along Pinellas beaches: 'It's overwhelming. You can't even breathe.'

A black skimmer that was hatched on Marco Island earlier this year failed to grow normally, said Marianne Korosy, director of bird conservation for Audubon of Florida. At last the bird became too sick to stand up, and eventually it died.

State wildlife officials ordered a necropsy, which is the animal version of an autopsy. The cause of death turned out to be a parasite, Korosy said, but "its tissues were loaded" with Red Tide toxins. She said the suspicion is that Red Tide's toxins weakened the bird's immune system, allowing the parasite to run amok.

RELATED: Clues to combating Red Tide are found in mounting manatee carcasses

The good news, Margeson said, is that all the wildlife rehabilitation workers and avid birders are working together to search the beaches and find victims before it's too late. Most can be treated for their poisoning if they get care in time.

Here's one more piece of good news about the Red Tide impact on seabirds:

When Forys went to St. Pete Beach, she was searching for any black skimmers that might have been sickened by Red Tide. The skimmers are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty and are classified as threatened by Florida's wildlife agency. She was relieved she didn't find any.

"Fortunately," she said, "their nesting season was over."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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