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Skimmers tend pad as big bird lifts off

June 15, 1998
The Tampa Tribune
By April Simun

Cape Canaveral – Spread out your towel. Dig your feet in the sand. But be careful – a day at the beach can mean fowl play.

Bird watchers hope beachgoers don’t disrupt the nesting of black skimmers, birds whose declining numbers are cause for alarm.

The black-backed, white-bellied birds are in the peak of their nesting season. They have been spotted everywhere from Gulf beaches to the back yard of NASA’s launch pad.

“It’s one of the harder birds to protect in the area because they must nest in the same type of habitats people like,” said Ann Schnapf, assistant manager of the National Audubon Society’s Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuary.

“For the person, it is just a day on the beach. For the bird, it is an entire reproductive season.”

Larry Templeton has made it his mission to guard the birds that nest in his jurisdiction. He was hired 11 years ago to guard the Kennedy Space Center’s media parking lot during NASA events.

During the most recent launch of the space shuttle Discovery, Templeton guarded more than cars.

He watched over three nests of skimmers, which are on the state’s species of special concern list. Such a listing means the birds aren’t as rare as endangered or threatened species, but their numbers either are declining or at such a low level that they need protection.

“I’m not going to let anyone around there,” Templeton said, pointing to the coned-off areas of the parking lot. Each had a sand-filled pothole, where birds had laid their 3-inch-long speckled eggs.

“They look for indentations in the parking lot, and they just lay their eggs in that,” he said.

Parent birds had abandoned two of the three nests well before the time Discovery was launched.

In the 90 degrees-plus heat of the Florida sun, unprotected eggs don’t stand much chance of hatching. The eggs can fry in a little as 20 minutes, Schnapf said.

Templeton looked with pride at the one faithful skimmer couple still guarding four eggs.

“Those eggs are going to hatch,” he said.

Although Templeton is helping the birds’ chances, single nesting pairs are more vulnerable to predators than those in the usual nesting colonies, Schnapf said.

“You don’t have those other adults to help defend their area,” she said. “If you pull your boat up on a shore where a colony is nesting, all the birds would get up and yell at you. They’d all bark at you together.”

She said the skimmers, which got their name because they use their elongated bills to skim fish and small crustaceans from water surfaces, picked the parking lot as their home because it meets their nesting criteria: It’s flat, sandy and plantless, with lots of gravel and water.

Even more birds nest in the Tampa Bay area than on Merritt Island, where the space center is located, said Schnapf, who is based in Tampa. In fact, about two-thirds of the 2,000 black skimmers found in Florida last year were in the Tampa Bay area.

Their reproductive season runs from late April to the end of August. During the time, females lay between one and five eggs each and incubate them for about three weeks.

Adult birds guard the nests until well after the young ones have learned to fly, about a month after hatching.

In recent years, bird-watchers have identified large colonies on a 3-D Island and Sand Key, near the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, where Schnapf said warnings are posted to keep tourists out of nesting areas.

“Nesting colonies should all be posted,” she said. “People should respect those colonies and keep their dogs out of them. If we can take the human factor out, then we give the birds a fighting chance.”

A fighting chance is what Templeton hopes to give the NASA birds.