Two rafts floating in a lagoon at Fort De Soto Park are bustling with activity lately.
Instead of noisy, splashing youngsters in brightly colored swimsuits, these rafts are full of tiny black and white shorebirds that have returned to the coast to nest and rear their young.
The man-made bird-nesting platforms, built to resemble gravel rooftops, were placed in the lagoon in 2010. The effort is finally paying off this year.
Volunteers have counted about 20 nests with eggs on the two rafts this year, and at least seven pairs of least terns successfully hatched babies. Members of the Suncoast Shorebird Partnership have banded 14 chicks hatched on the rafts, so they can identify them later if they spot them on local beaches.
Because of the success in Pinellas County, Hillsborough County parks and recreation officials are considering placing a similar raft at Wolf Branch Creek Nature Preserve in Ruskin to see if the terns will again nest there successfully.
The Suncoast Shorebird Partnership — an alliance of the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources Department, local Audubon club volunteers, professionals and volunteers from Eckerd College and avian advocates — collected the materials, built the rafts and placed them.
Dreamed up by avid birder and bird steward Lorraine Margeson, of St. Petersburg, the idea was that if the terns nested on the rafts, they would be spared the high tides that often destroy eggs on the beach.
The idea worked.
"Jim was the only one who believed in my coo-coo idea," Margeson said, referring to Fort De Soto Park Supervisor Jim Wilson.
Several years ago, Wilson helped the volunteers get 70 acres along the beach roped off to protect nesting shorebirds from the throngs of human visitors that converge on the park each spring and summer.
Margeson and Wilson were at Fort De Soto last week when the first of the baby least terns fledged, flying from one raft to the other. Margeson danced a victory dance and hooted with elation after watching the fledgling take to the air above the rafts.
Back before thousands of people converged on Pinellas County and began developing the pristine beaches, shorebirds nested along the shoreline by the thousands.
As the solitude vanished, so did many of the birds.
The least terns began substituting gravel rooftops for the sandy beaches they once used to create their miniscule nests and rear their young.
Then, it happened again. This time, the gravel rooftops began disappearing as new roofing products replaced them. And the least tern population plunged.
Margeson and Beth Forys, a biology professor at Eckerd College, both say they hope projects such as the raft experiment will turn that around, not only here, but in other parts of Florida.
"It was amazing" to finally see the project succeed, Forys said.
"We saw a couple pairs on the rafts early in the season; then a week later, there was a big group," Forys said.
That's what least terns need to be successful: numbers.
"A bunch of them will launch an attack on crows and laughing gulls" who might try to snatch the eggs, Forys said.
Volunteers endearingly call that the least tern air force. If trouble comes near, the birds take to the air around the nesting site and aren't afraid to attack.
The Suncoast Shorebird Partnership has gotten inquiries from various parts of the state on how to build the rafts, in hopes of having the same success.
Ross Dickerson, who heads Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, said he is considering building one for Wolf Branch Creek.
Hillsborough parks volunteer Rocky Milburn approached Forys and Margeson about the raft project and then shared the information with Dickerson.
Least terns have successfully nested on the uplands at Wolf Branch in the past, but it's been about a decade, Dickerson said.
"We are trying to decide if we will do a floating raft or clear an area in the uplands," he said. "But we are definitely considering the raft."
Margeson also has gotten inquiries about the rafts from bird stewards in Miami-Dade County, Brevard County and the Panhandle.
Seeing the chicks on the rafts is the first step toward success, Forys said.
"When we see these banded birds on the beaches later, that will confirm that this really did work."