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Protecting the Least Among Us

June 21, 2008

By Jennifer Rich, Destin Log, Fla.

Jun. 21–Volunteers with the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge have decided not to bury their heads in the sand about the slew of birds that keep walking off buildings in Destin.

Originally started by the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society, the effort was turned over to the refuge to coordinate volunteers in Destin and Fort Walton Beach to respond to this growing problem.

Now declared a threatened species in Florida, least terns in our area have taken up residency on the roofs of local businesses for decades.

However, a rooftop view comes with plenty of peril.

“These roofs have no barrier on the backside,” Dill Beaty, a volunteer for the refuge and member of the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society, explained as he prepared to return a fledgling that was found behind Old Time Pottery. “They just stumble off or get excited if a crow comes along.”

These migratory ground breeders prefer to nest in the sands of beaches that are free of human activity and predators.

With a lack of uninhabited beach in Destin, the terns have adapted by nesting on the white gravel roofs of buildings that resemble their normal breeding grounds.

“The birds would much prefer to be on the beach, but it’s like a highway out there with condos out as far as they can go, non-stop foot and now vehicular traffic — it is impossible for them to nest in a developed area,” said Timothy Mahar, a conservationist that gives his time to the cause.

The refuge volunteers save the lives of these birds with a very simple innovation called a “chick-a-boom,” created by the Audubon society.

Beaty fashioned the device out of an extension rod that has been modified with an orange juice carton fixed to the end of it.

The bird is placed in the carton portion, raised to the roof ‘s edge and then unloaded back on to the roof.

“The mother finds it again almost right away,” Beaty said.

Beaty has observed the most active locations in Destin to be the roofs of Old Time Pottery, Inn on Destin Harbor and West Marine.

OfficeMax, Walgreens, Chan’s Wine World and Belk are also favorite nesting spots. Beaty has also spotted killdeers and black skimmers on the roofs, too.

The fledglings can surprisingly survive the fall because they are “big balls of feathers.” The real danger lies in being exposed to the elements. Dehydration and the hot sun can quickly kill the helpless, flightless birds that sit stunned on the pavement.

For this reason, the birds must be inspected before they are raised to the roof.

Patrick Gault, assistant director of the refuge, said that the best thing for someone to do if they find a wayward bird is to contact the refuge and let them examine the bird for injuries and dehydration.

The goal of the volunteers is to remove the terns from the list of threatened species.

Currently, the refuge needs volunteers in Fort Walton Beach.

Anyone interested in giving their time to help the terns should contact the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge at (850) 650-1880.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Destin Log, Fla.

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