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Red Tide Killing Threatened Shorebirds

A bird that migrates more than 9,000 miles from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America, is encountering problems when it stops over in the Tampa Bay area.

Red tide has killed at least 12 of the threatened red knots over the past week.

The birds are headed south this time of year and land on beaches in west Florida to rest and fuel up on fish.

Dead fish from red tide make an easy meal for the tired birds but the toxins affect their central nervous system, said Melissa Dollard, avian hospital director for the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores.

“Usually people will find them just lying on the beach, unable to move at all,” Dollard said. “Or sometimes they will still be walking but they're just kind of stumbling, their balance isn't quite right and they are like face-planting.”

The sanctuary gives the birds fluids to flush the toxins out of their systems. They feed them medication through tubes and load them up with fish to maintain their weight and get them healthy again.

“Depending on how they are responding to it, within a few days they can bounce back,” Dollard said. "It all depends on how severe they were and how much weight they had lost.”

Of the 19 birds that were brought into the sanctuary six have been rehabilitated and one is still critical. 

Because the birds are federally listed as a threatened species, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is collecting the carcasses to complete necropsies to determine how the toxins affect the birds.

The birds feed in groups so many can become affected by the toxins in a single area, Dollard said.

“If they are all exposed to the toxin at one time it can really affect the population on a much larger level,” Dollard said. “When you have one large group that all goes down at once it can significantly affect their breeding in the following year.”

The red knots are one of the largest sandpiper species in North America. They breed in the Canadian Artic and then winter on the southernmost tip of South America. Their migration is among the longest of any bird.

As of this week, the sanctuary had received about 40 birds that were affected by red tide, including pelicans, cormorants, turns and gulls.

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