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Magnificent frigate bird may face bleak future

From time to time, beachgoers along Brevard and Volusia may look high in the sky and spot a very large bird with a distinctive “V” in each wing and a split tail.

It’s an aerial virtuoso, the magnificent frigate bird, and Florida expert Ken Meyer fears they are in for tough times unless the species can expand where it breeds and thrives. “They are declining in population,” he said, explaining there are several sources of trouble for the birds, including the disappearance of fish that they hunt.

Already under assault, their single, low-lying nesting site in Florida is vulnerable to drowning because of “climate change and sea-level rise,” Meyer said.

Frigate birds have wingspans of more than 7 feet and spend their lives soaring over coastlines and oceans in voyages that last days and nights without touching land. Their feathers are not waterproofed with a coat of oil, as with many other birds, and landing on ocean waters can be lethal.

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Despite their size, they are agile enough to snatch flying fish in midflight and quick enough to harass gulls into surrendering fish they had caught. Florida has a small population of frigate birds that nests each year; their home is a group of islands at the end of the Florida Keys called the Dry Tortugas.

Thousands more breed in South America or on Caribbean islands and come to South Florida for the winter. That so many of the birds visit Florida suggests to Meyer that the state has enough habitat to support a second population of nesting frigate birds. He thinks an ideal site would be among remote islands of the Florida Keys that are uninhabited and protected as sanctuaries.

Beginning last year on those islands, Meyer and staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been setting up frigate bird decoys and speakers that play recordings of the birds.

Customized with paint and plywood, the decoys are made from manufactured decoys of other birds. Meyer said the decoys aren’t “fine art” but they work well, presented in a half-dozen postures. “It’s really cool to watch; the birds come in and snuggle up next to a decoy,” he said. “It’s not like they ever catch on.”

Frigate birds do not breed until they are 5 to 10 years old, which means the efforts to lure the birds must be repeated for many years, Meyer said. “We are trying to attract birds that are from 6 months old to 9 years old,” he added. Meyer is a founder of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute based in Gainesville. His efforts with frigate birds have been supported by the Bailey Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Meyer will meet tonight with the Orange Audubon Society at Orlando’s Leu Gardens to talk about another of Florida’s spectacular birds, the acrobatic swallow-tailed kite. He also will take questions about frigate birds.

This story was re-posted from the Orlando Sentinel.

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