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Date of Issue: April 28, 2005

Bean Point beach marked for nesting bird protection

It's a bird-eat-bird world out there.

If you don't think so, just ask Nancy Douglass with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Douglass and co-worker Diana Lawhorn along with National Audubon Society members Monday were on the beach in Anna Maria to cordon off a football-field-sized area to protect the nests and chicks of rare least terns and black skimmers.

For Douglass, the area about 1/4 mile north of the Sandbar restaurant is one of the finest habitats left in Florida for these birds to rear their young.

Douglass, who covers 13 counties from Lee to Hernando, said the place marked off with warning and keep-out signs is one of the few remaining beach nesting areas left on the Gulf Coast.

St. Petersburg Audubon member Monique Adams said things have gotten so bad for least terns in Pinellas County that the birds have started laying their eggs on pebble roof tops.

Douglass said it is the tern's and skimmer's habit to scrape a place in beach sand to lay their eggs, which then are exposed to the elements and to unthinking beachgoers who walk on the nests and never know it.

"The least terns and skimmers tend to nest in such vulnerable places and people view these spots as recreational areas when they are important wildlife habitats," Douglass said. "They scrape a shallow nest in the sand and when they lay eggs and when the eggs hatch, they're out in a wide-open space and if someone scares off one of the parents, another bird such as the laughing gull will come along and eat the eggs or the chicks. It's a bird-eat-bird world out there.

"This beach in Anna Maria is such a rare opportunity because hurricanes and development pressure along the Florida coast have eliminated so much habitat. This is excellent habitat."

Adams of St. Pete said although the terns in Pinellas have gone from the beach to roof tops, they're now heading back to the beach because gravel roofs are becoming a thing of the past.

The problem terns and skimmers have to deal with on Florida beaches has to do with foot traffic.

Both birds depend on camouflage for protection. When the eggs are laid in the sand, they are almost identical in color, an off-white color with small splotches of gray.

People walking the beach can step on the eggs and never know it, Douglass said.

The area Douglass and volunteers cordoned off is so special that a pair of snowy plovers - so rare that only 200 nesting pairs were found in Florida in 2004 - built a nest there last year.

Clearwater Audubon Society member Sid Crawford, who was operating a gas-powered auger to drill holes in the sand for the posts Douglass was putting in, said it's important to help save these birds because they act as a barometer in terms of how the environment is doing.

"If they start disappearing, you know something is wrong with the environment you're living in," Crawford said. "If you lose it, you never get it back. Saving areas for these birds to nest is like a garden. You have to put energy into it to make it grow. If you want to keep something the way it is, you have to put energy into the system."

Here's what you can do to help:

Some birds such as terns and skimmers require a 600-foot comfort zone during breeding season, while other species are more tolerant. A general rule is to stay 300 feet away from a nesting area.

Keep out of posted areas during the spring and summer nesting season.

Never intentionally force birds to fly.