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Tern nests turning up in all sorts of locations

The birds prefer to nest on beaches. But as the migrate, they also seek refuge on roofs, which offer little protection.

By THERESA BLACKWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


TIERRA VERDE -- The chick, speckled black and white and probably two days old, sat on the sidewalk flanked by condominiums three stories tall.

He was a least tern, a genuine snowbird whose parents migrate here from South America in April and go back for that hemisphere's summer in September. A colony of least terns as well as some black skimmers are nesting on the roof of Building One at the Village at Tierra Verde.

This little guy had taken a big fall. Glenn Olsen, the complex's maintenance worker, thought a predatory crow stole the chick from its nest, then dropped the bird when its fiercely protective parents showed up.

"I scratched his little head and he moved, so I got a box and put him in," Olsen said.

A colleague rushed the chick to Lee Fox, who runs Save Our Seabirds in Tierra Verde.

They hadn't called ahead, but Fox had been expecting visitors, the first of many least terns she will care for in the coming weeks.

She settled the bird into a cage with a soft towel. One leg was injured and a wing was bruised, but they weren't broken. At first, Fox couldn't interest him in eating.

"Not a good sign," she said.

Throughout Tampa Bay, seabirds that typically would nest on undisturbed shores are fighting to survive as humans pack beaches and boaters gather at once-remote islands. The least tern and a few other species have adapted, nesting on the flat, gravel roofs of buildings such as these condos.

Some of the rooftop habitats confirmed around Pinellas so far include the Petsmart near Countryside Mall; the Autoway Dodge and the Autoway Pontiac-GMC South car dealerships in Clearwater; the Home Depot in Largo; a motel in Treasure Island; an Amoco gas station on Ninth Street N, the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library and Coquina Hall at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

Up on the roof, new perils await these birds.

Predators such as crows, gulls and owls wait for parents to leave the nests so they can take the eggs or chicks. The low brush that grows on dunes at the beach is missing on roofs, leaving no place to hide from predators and no shade from the baking sun.

The light, gravel surface isn't deep enough to cushion the eggs as a sandy beach would. With a harder surface beneath them, the larger black skimmers and the few American oystercatchers -- both species of special concern -- can crack their eggs during nesting.

The roofs have a limit. Many chicks fall off unprotected edges as they run after a parent that leaves to get food.

Heavy rains mean temporary flooding of their homes, which are mere scrapes in the gravel.

Most of the 150 or more birds nesting on Building One are least terns. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lists them as a threatened species, a little better than endangered, the last adjective before extinction.

The least tern comes by its name naturally. It is the smallest tern in the world at 9 inches. It's mostly white and silvery with a mask of black on its face. It may hover and then dive to the water to catch small fish or attack much larger birds or people when their nests are threatened.

Christine Wayda, the property manager at the Village at Tierra Verde, told the story of an air-conditioning repairman who opened the door to the roof and was surprised to see many nests with eggs and dozens of alarmed little birds flying at him.

He retreated, donned a raincoat and bravely tiptoed through the nests. Eggs were hatching all around him as he worked on the air conditioning unit. The terns eventually accepted his presence and left him alone.

Once a nest is established, the least tern, black skimmer and American oystercatcher are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It's a federal offense to disturb the nests, eggs or birds, punishable by up to $500 in fines and up to six months in jail.

The residents of Building One will have to dodge the droppings for a few more weeks until the offspring are ready to travel.

The injured chick is on the mend and eating everything that Fox puts in front of him.

"I found him swimming in his dish, paddling around in the water and eating the fish," Fox said.

When his down is replaced by feathers and he passes a flight test, Fox will take him out, probably to Shell Key, where he will join a colony of least terns.

Rooftops can be made more bird-friendly

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prefers that people welcome threatened bird species to our roofs for a couple of months out of the year. They have suggestions for improving the nesting conditions on rooftops. Those suggestions appear below.

The commission also offers advice on how to discourage roof nesting next year. Call Nancy Douglass or Isaac Chandler at (863) 648-3203.

Some extra light-colored pebbles or sand would help protect the birds from tar, cushion the nests and provide more camouflage.

The chicks could use something to hide under that keeps predators out and provides shade. Shipping pallets or two pieces of plywood joined like an A-frame with a small rise at the seam could be secured to the roof. A row of concrete blocks turned on their sides also has been suggested.

Where the roof has no wall surrounding it, a screened fence as low as 6 inches high would keep the chicks from running over. Gutters and drainpipes also should be screened over.

Rescue agencies you can call

If you find an injured bird, call a rescue agency.

Save Our Seabirds, Tierra Verde, 864-0679.

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Inc., Indian Shores, 391-6211.

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