KEY LARGO -- State officials and bird rehabilitators in the Florida Keys are taking extra measures to protect one of the smallest of the seabirds, the least tern.
The least tern population is threatened in Florida due to fewer and fewer areas of undisturbed shoreline.
"It's mainly a lack of habitat," said Ricardo Zambrano, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The bird, which prefers to nest on sandy beaches, has turned to flat, gravel roofs as an alternative, which presents a different set of problems, including hot tar, cats and dangerous falls.
Amanda Margraves, hospital manager of Tavernier's Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, and her staff have begun installing plywood barriers on roofs of Key Largo businesses to prevent baby terns from falling off.
In addition to such installations, the group has begun monitoring the bird's population. Such information gathering is one part of the FWC's newly-created Shorebird Alliance program.
When someone comes across the small, abandoned seabird, they should contact local wildlife officials immediately to get the birds back in their habitat, Margraves said. The more time that passes the less likely the bird will reconnect with its family.
"They have to go back to their same parents on the same rooftop," Margraves said.
Earlier this month, she and her staff installed barriers on the roof of Pino Windows, where a number of baby terns have been rescued. Even during the barrier installation, Margraves' group had to prevent birds from falling off the roof.
The least tern doesn't just nest in the Upper Keys, but can be found throughout the island chain during nesting season.
"They are using a variety of roof tops on the island to colonize," said Peggy Coontz of the Key West Wildlife Center.
Coontz said the least tern is a perennial visitor this time of year.
The small gray bird is attracted to flat, gravel roofs where, after 72 hours of hatching, its young are free to walk around without the constant company of their parents. But the threatened birds are faced with many challenges. In addition to cats and bad weather, other birds can easily destroy a least tern colony. And as buildings are built or renovated, flat roofs seem to be much less popular.
"These roofs are starting to go away and then what?" Zambrano said.
The wildlife biologist says he plans on using least tern counts to create a database. The result of Zambrano's work could lead to policy recommendations to improve the bird's habitat.
Those interested in the Shorebird Alliance can visit www.myfwc.com/shorebirds.