Red Tide also can affect birds along the shore

Birds that get sick appear to fall ill after eating the dead fish killed by the toxic algae.

Toxins from Red Tide can affect shorebirds like these gulls and terns, which may eat fish that have been exposed to the microscopic algae. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Toxins from Red Tide can affect shorebirds like these gulls and terns, which may eat fish that have been exposed to the microscopic algae. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]

One recent morning, Elizabeth Forys saw a strange sight on St. Pete Beach.

The Eckerd College biology professor was visiting to check on the condition of certain seabirds as a Red Tide algae bloom rolled into Pinellas County’s iconic beaches. She saw a laughing gull just sitting on the sand, and she walked up to it. Instead of flying away, it didn’t move, not even when someone came to pick it up.

As with other birds she’d seen staggering around as if they had vertigo, she suspects the gull was poisoned by Red Tide.

Amid all the talk of the wildlife killed by Red Tide this year — eels, snook, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles — seabirds and shore birds are frequently left out.

But they’re suffering as well, to the point that wildlife rehabilitation experts are on the lookout for ailing birds. They are particularly searching for the ones that are supposed to be protected by state and federal law, such as black skimmers, least terns, snowy plovers, oystercatchers and red knots.

READ MORE: Answers to questions about Red Tide

"We’re really worried about the red knots," said Lorraine Margeson, an avid birder who monitors nesting behavior at For DeSoto. She noted that this time of year, more than a thousand often wind up on the beaches between St. Pete Beach and Sand Key.

The birds that get sick appear to fall ill after eating the dead fish killed by Red Tide. The algae’s toxins collect in their avian bodies and affect their neurological and digestive systems.

Sometimes the poison is fatal. Forys said four snowy plovers died on Lido Key near Sarasota, all apparently killed by Red Tide. She said that’s an unheard of number of simultaneous deaths for that species, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

WHERE (AND WHAT) IS RED TIDE? Visit our Visitor Information section for more about Red Tide, and find a link to the state's map tracking the blooms.

The hardest hit area appeared to be Sarasota. There, a wildlife rehabilitation facility called Save Our Seabirds took in 45 sick birds in a single morning, said Melissa Dollard, avian hospital director for the Seashore Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. Dollard said she’s hoping her facility doesn’t get that many Red Tide patients in such a short space of time.

"We’ve gotten about 20 birds so far that are presenting with Red Tide symptoms," Dollard said.

The ones most commonly affected are the laughing gulls, she said, but the sanctuary has also cared for a pair of cormorants, a ruddy turnstone and a few pelicans, among other species.

Treating them involves giving them food that’s not tainted by Red Tide, providing fluids to flush out the toxins and sometimes treating them with activated charcoal, which helps purge the Red Tide, Dollard said. Usually they’re fine after seven to 10 days of treatment, she said.

READ MORE: Is Red Tide affect Florida's seafood? It's best to ask before you eat.

The sick ones are easy to spot, said Holley Short, project manager for bird stewardship for Audubon’s Tampa Bay chapter.

"They can’t support themselves," she said. "They’re not behaving the way birds on a beach normally would. They’re not able to control their movements."

A black skimmer that was hatched on Marco Island earlier this year failed to grow normally, said Marianne Korosy, director of bird conservation for Audubon of Florida. At last the bird became too sick to stand up, and eventually it died.

State wildlife officials ordered a necropsy, which is the animal version of an autopsy. The cause of death turned out to be a parasite, Korosy said, but "its tissues were loaded" with Red Tide toxins. She said the suspicion is that Red Tide’s toxins weakened the bird’s immune system, allowing the parasite to run amok.

The good news, Margeson said, is that all the wildlife rehabilitation workers and avid birders are working together to search the beaches and find victims before it’s too late. Most can be treated for their poisoning if they get care in time.

READ MORE: Africa's dust may be partly to blame for Florida's Red Tide.

Here’s one more piece of good news about the Red Tide impact on seabirds:

When Forys went to St. Pete Beach, she was searching for any black skimmers that might have been sickened by Red Tide. The skimmers are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty and are classified as threatened by Florida’s wildlife agency. She was relieved she didn’t find any.

"Fortunately," she said, "their nesting season was over."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Sept. 17, 2018.

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Craig Pittman is the environmental reporter at the Tampa Bay Times. A native Floridian, he is the author of several books about the state.