Dr. Beth Forys: Researching the Wonders of and Threats to Native Florida Birds

Journalist: Kaitlin Stanton | Editor: Trish Schranck | Photographer: Anne Flaherty

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Dr. Elizabeth Forys, Ph.D., is a long-time Eckerd College professor of Environmental Science and Biology. Dr. Forys is a beloved inspiration to many Eckerd students as a result of her passion for ornithology. Specializing in bird conservation efforts, she has been conducting her own research for years. Dr. Forys began her scientific journey at the University of Virginia, where she completed her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science with a minor in Biology. She then earned her Masters in Environmental Science, and shortly after, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. After completing her own education, Dr. Forys worked as an endangered species biologist in the Florida Keys before coming to Eckerd College in 1996, where she has both taught and conducted research for the past 22 years.

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Dr. Forys is not only an excellent teacher, but she is also the head of the undergraduate osprey research program at Eckerd. This research began when the Pinellas County Eagle and Osprey coordinator, Barbara Walker, approached Dr. Forys about a collaboration project on nest monitoring in St. Petersburg. Dr. Forys accepted the position as she surmised the research would be perfect for undergraduate students seeking field experience, and she was correct. The osprey observation program is now fully established on campus, and Dr. Forys selects two first-year students each semester to conduct the field work.

During the fall, students primarily observe which birds are near which nests, identify whether new materials have been added to the nest,if there are chicks, and regularly monitor the development of said chicks. In the spring, the students focus primarily on the birds that nest on the beaches and the conditions surrounding their nests.

“The presence of ospreys indicates that the environment is healthy because they are top predators, but population management still needs to be done,” Dr. Forys said. “I think students like that ospreys are top predators, and they are studying their behaviors because of the concerns we have for their conservation.”

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Dr. Forys got her start in bird conservation after studying endangered species. Volunteers for the local Audubon Society initially sparked her interest when they alerted Dr. Forys that the birds nesting on local beaches were declining in numbers. Wanting to help, she began helping with a small project focusing on birds that nest on beaches, and she eventually made them the focus of her own personal research.

“Currently, threats to birds nesting on beaches are really severe,” said Dr. Forys. A mainfocus of her research is pinpointing factors that inhibit nesting populations. One species she is particularly interested in studying arethe endangered black skimmers, which nest on open beaches and are experiencing a noticeable decline in their populations. To understand why this decline is occurring, Dr. Forys is using towers that detect a nanotag on a bird flying overhead. The nanotag sends a radio frequency to the tower, and the information is then integrated into the system to help build a bigger picture of the species movement.

“During migration,” said Dr. Forys, “things such as storms and hunting can affect the species’ population.” She explained that many of these factors, which occur outside of the breeding season, can tell researchers a lot about why a population is declining. “There’s also overfishing, so the birds are moving more than they usually do because there’s no prey available,” said Dr. Forys. “Fish species of all kinds are declining as well, so the black skimmers are right behind them.”

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The results from Dr. Forys’ research so far show that the behavior of black skimmers is becoming increasingly erratic. According to Dr. Forys’, black skimmers nest in huge colonies, so it was initially hypothesized that the majority of the birds would either stay in Fort de Soto or fly south for the winter. However, after careful field workobservations, Dr. Forys’ team has determined that many skimmers actually travel north. There were birds seen in Louisiana, and some were even reported in Georgia, which is unusual for this species. Dr. Forys is nowhere near done with her research, and she hopes to do more collaborative work with other researchers to tackle the issue of population declination.

“We all need to be working together on these projects with species that are declining to such a high degree,” Dr. Forys explained, expressing how dire the need for action concerning beach nesting bird populations really is. She is always looking for students to help monitor the beach species as well as help educate the public about the importance of shore birds. Dr. Forys is also collaborating with many specialists from southwest Florida and the Carolinas to continue to grow this database of migration patterns amongst skimmers and other beach nestingspecies.

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Dr. Forys’ research is still in progress, so she estimates that a publication of her current skimmer studies will not be available to the public for another year or so. However, many students are involved in both her osprey and beach nestingspecies research, and Dr. Forys has other publications for students to read if they are interested in applied conservation biology.

“The publication I’m working on currently is over a study in which we tried to teach crows not to eat seabird eggs,” revealed Dr. Forys. If you are interested in her work, her many publications are available to read online through Eckerd College’s online database as well as through the link https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elizabeth_Forys. Be sure to stay tuned for her upcoming publication next year!