SUN PHOTOS/TOM VAUGHT
A volunteer holds one of the tiny shorebirds after another volunteer tagged its leg.
ANNA MARIA – Beach goers and lunchtime diners at the Sandbar restaurant got a treat last Friday as a scientist and a group of specialists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and US Department of Agriculture captured some small shorebirds for banding and testing. They used gunpowder to catch the small, elusive birds.
It began shortly before the lunch hour when Dr. Larry Niles and the volunteers started setting up on the beach. Groups of shorebirds were standing around searching for food, but Dr. Niles was interested in one breed only, the red knot. These small, gray colored creatures are long-mileage birds that migrate as far north as the Arctic and as far south as South Africa, and their numbers are dwindling. Niles and the specialists weighed and measured each bird and banded them for future research to learn more about their migration patterns.
Nancy Douglass, who assisted Niles, said they have a clue about why the species is dwindling.
"When they migrate north, they stop at Delaware Bay to feed for the long trip to the Arctic, where they breed," she said. "They need to double their weight or they won’t make it and they feed on horseshoe crab eggs. Humans have been harvesting the crabs as bait."
Niles and his crew captured the birds by laying a large net and staking one side of it into the beach. Then they connected the other side to two large metal bars that are fitted into a pole, like a mortar, which contains the gunpowder.
After setting the trap, they had to wait for the shorebirds to move south, into the area where the net would land. Douglass was told to walk slowly at them from the north and then herd them westward when some of the birds got too close to the explosives.
When they got the birds where they wanted them, Niles gave the order to set of the explosives and the net went flying out over the startled birds. After it settled, the crew ran toward the net, and Niles ordered them to cover the captured birds with dark bags, which he explained later calmed them.
As the crew moved to get the birds out from under the net and into plastic boxes, they asked the curious beachgoers if they would help. Several people volunteered and went into action too.
After they began the measuring and banding, Dr. Niles said it had gone perfectly.
"We had an experienced team from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and they performed flawlessly," he said. "The chief thing is to keep the birds safe and we did not injure any of them today."
Niles said that they try to complete their processing within three hours.
Sarah Rolland, of North Carolina, was on the beach with her sister-in-law, Annette Magrant, of Bradenton, and they jumped in when the team asked for volunteers to help them.
"I think it’s nice that they let us help," Rolland said. "They trusted us with their birds."
Ava Jordan and her mom, Kyle Newman, of New Jersey, were at the beach with Emily Manfull and Alex Sappraicone, of Manatee County. The three young women helped fold the netting and said what the team was doing was fascinating. They said they would definitely consider marine biology as a profession some day.