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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Volunteers on patrol to protect least terns

In the heart of a sprawling industrial area is a large pond. Scores of birds soar above it and swoop down to skim the surface just enough to wet their belly feathers.

The birds are least terns that are nesting atop a nearby building. They dab their tummies in the water to cool off their gestating eggs. The baby birds need even more help once they hatch.

That’s why a group of volunteers engages in “chick-checking,” or patrolling perimeters of buildings atop which there are known nests. They are equipped with a contraption called a chick-a-boom, which is a long pole with a box at the end designed for delivering chicks back to the rooftops.

They have been doing so each nesting season since 1996 and have over the years saved hundreds of baby least terns from being eaten by fire ants or crushed. This month the contents of many of those nests are hatching, so bird conservationists are ramping up rescue efforts. Volunteers throughout the state, including the Tampa Bay area, will look for fallen chicks three times a day, seven days a week at numerous buildings.

“On many rooftops they’ve actually done pretty well,” said Beth Forys, a professor of environmental science and biology at Eckerd College.

In a perfect world, least terns would nest on beaches, laying eggs in a small divot they scrape in a sandy area with little vegetation.

“They almost always never make it on the beach,” said environmental activist Lorraine Margeson. “That’s why (rooftops are) so, so important.”

Development and the proliferation of cats and other predators have driven them onto flat gravel rooftops, where the only predator is the laughing gull.

“We think that often they’re trying to nest on the beach,” Forys said. “They really don’t get a chance to nest unless we set aside part of the beach.”

Least terns are listed as threatened in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

Each rooftop yields dozens of least tern chicks, which can walk before they fly. Forys said they tend to run toward the horizon, possibly thinking they’re on a beach, approaching the surf. If there’s no lip around the edge of a building, they easily fall over the edge, plummeting to the ground.

Environmentalists and conservationists say the birds’ importance as a species lies in the balance they maintain by occupying their spot in the food web.

“They pick off the weaker fish. And they probably are prey to bigger hawks,” Forys said. “They’re not like sea gulls, so they won’t steal your food.”

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