Roofs offer home for nesting terns

Some businesses let birds use their gravel rooftops as beach habitats dry up.

Published May 27, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Despite help from businesses in an industrial park, habitat-starved least terns still seem to be on the wane.

"So far this year, we've seen an enormous decline, " said Beth Forys, a professor of biology and environmental science at Eckerd College.

Forys said there were about 2, 000 least terns in the Tampa Bay region last year, down from 3, 000 just four years earlier. She said counts so far this year show about 1, 000, even though businesses are doing their part to help.

"I'm amazed and impressed at how supportive they've been, " Forys said of the efforts, especially of businesses in the Joe's Creek Industrial Park along 34th Street.

The birds are in the midst of their nesting season and would normally prefer an open, sandy beach. With more people crowding barrier islands, the birds have learned to make their nests on gravel roofs, particularly the larger ones such as those on warehouses and car dealerships, so they can enjoy the protection of nesting in a colony.

But nesting birds bring bird droppings, so not all businesses are pleased. Further, despite a state program that will help pay for new gravel roofs, some businesses are shifting away from that style in favor of more energy-efficient roofs that don't produce debris in a storm.

"We're just hoping we can keep gravel roofs around long enough that we can make some other artificial habitat, " said Monique Borboen-Abrams, a volunteer with the St. Petersburg Audubon Society.

Some of the Joe's Creek businesses are active supporters of the birds.

"We all kind of pitch in, " said Jeani Poth, human resources manager at Stone Resources Inc. on 46th Avenue N. "It's important for the birds. There's very few of them left in nature. Their habitat is not that great."

Poth said the company has no plans to change its gravel roof. She also said tending to the birds is not a great sacrifice; employees merely walk the grounds a few times a day to find fallen chicks and return them to their roof using a long stick called a chick-a-boom. She said the bird droppings are not a problem.

Hall's Wholesale Florist also helps out. In addition to returning chicks to roofs, employee Michael Reichard also tracks and counts the birds.

"If it's good for the birds, that's what we need to do, " he said. "They've lost a lot of their territory. I do what I can to help."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also offers help of up to $20, 000 in matching funds when an owner wants to repair or install a new gravel roof and preserve the birds' de facto habitat. Not many businesses, or even homeowners, take part, said Lee Taylor, a FWC biologist.

"That human-wildlife interface has gotten close, " Taylor said. "Everyone has to adapt as much as the birds have."

Forys said there are more than 20 buildings in Pinellas that host least tern nests. Some are warehouses similar to those in Joe's Creek, but others are single-family homes. The birds will find the optimal locations close to water and food, but how successful they are can be a function of people helping, or at least not hurting.

This year, the nests are settled, and the birds will start hatching soon. Only 20 percent still nest on the beach, but Forys said those chicks can still thrive if not disturbed. The upcoming holiday weekend is always a danger because a swell of people can easily trample the shallow nests.

Volunteers will patrol area beaches to "educate" visitors about birds and their nests, Forys said, conceding that the education sometimes occurs at the top of a volunteer's lungs.

"Once we tell them, " she said, "most people are very respectful."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

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For more information about the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's habitat incentive program, visit http://myfwc.com/lip/ or call 863 648-3203