Tropical Storm Debby, combined with human interference, may have wiped out a generation of seabirds known as skimmers on the Gulf coast in southwest Florida, experts say.
The tropical storm likely washed hundreds of eggs out to sea, since this is prime nesting season for the birds. The black-and-white skimmers build the nests near the shoreline, said Robin Vergara of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Redington Beach.
In addition, well-meaning beach combers who spotted chicks that had been displaced from their nests brought them into the sanctuary, which wildlife experts say was a mistake.
More than 20 chicks were brought into the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary by passersby. That is the worst thing that can happen to the species, experts say.
Beth Forys, Environmental Science and Biology Professor at Eckerd College, said that people should be more aware of what not to do when storms like Debby plow through the beaches.
According to Forys, humans should not get involved unless an animal is injured.
Forys said that although the sight of the chicks being washed away is difficult to watch, mother nature is in control.
"Even though it's hard to see, it is best to leave the chicks with their parents," said Forys.
Since the chicks that did make it through the storm were brought into the sanctuary, they will not be taught to forage and survive from their parents.
It is unlikely that the new population will return to the wild, which takes away space at the sanctuary that could be used for injured birds.
Forys said that the skimmers will return to their nests, only to find them empty. Chances are, the birds will attempt to reproduce again, but it will put the birth date pretty deep into hurricane season which, again, will put the survival rate at risk.
Forys said that the skimmers could face a decline in the regional population considering the number of eggs and chicks that were lost to the storm.
Most of the eggs were expected to hatch by mid-July at the latest, but the storm came far too early for all of the chicks to survive.
Skimmers are a common sight on the beaches and are unique in their coloring, with black and white bodies and a splash of bright orange on their beaks and feet.
They exist in colonies and can be seen swooping in the shallow waters for food. Skimmers open their mouths slightly and skim the shore with the bottom of their jaw, usually traveling in packs.
Nesting for these little guys is found anywhere in the loose sand on the beach. Locally, they set up their nests near the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. The area is then roped off, so that the public does not disturb the colonies.
Vergara said that because of nesting season, there are hundreds of skimmers located near the sanctuary. Many of the chicks brought in by the public had been found near the sanctuary.
Since Tropical Storm Debby had her way with the beaches, most of the coming population of skimmers never had a chance. "The storm completely wiped out their nesting ground," said Vergara.
How You Can Help Seabirds
Since it is so early in the hurricane season, Forys said that there are some important measures for the public to take:
- Observe and admire the roped off nesting areas from afar. If a seabird is in distress, it is because their space/nest is being threatened. Parents will leave their eggs unattended if they feel uncomfortable and this leaves room for predators to indulge.
- Unless a seabird is injured, leave it alone. You may think you are helping, but mother nature has her own plan and humans are usually not part of the equation.
- Spread the word on the above issues. Word of mouth is a powerful tool and the more people who know what to do, the more chances these seabirds will have for survival.