“Yip, yip, yip!” The sound of seabirds greeted me as I crossed a strip of grassy dunes and was met by the sandy expanse of Lido Beach and the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The sands were dotted with loafing seabirds called Black Skimmers and, upon closer inspection, their grown chicks, nearly ready to fly for the first time.
Black Skimmers are characters of the seabird world. Handsome creatures with stark black backs and hoods that contrast against a crisp white belly, skimmers are a bit of an oddity with their mismatched orange and black beaks that, when opened, reveal a lower mandible that is much longer than the top. Flying just above the waters of the gulf, they’ll open their maw, dropping the lower bill so that it slices through the water in search of small fish. When the sensitive appendage detects one, it snaps shut in nearly the same instant, capturing the salty morsel in it’s “jaws”.
Stationed at the edge of the colony, scanning the birds through binoculars, I found Greg Taylor, Shorebird Project Coordinator for Audubon Florida.
Taylor monitors the skimmers as well other seabird colonies on Lido, Longboat and Siesta Key, that line the coast of nearby Sarasota where the birds raise their young over the course of the season. These nesting seabirds return annually to these beaches where they were likely once reared themselves, now to raise their own young. Taylor regularly visits the colony, keeping count of adults and chicks while also monitoring for predation, something that is a constant concern in a colony of birds that nest unprotected on the ground. Further, he manages a group of volunteers along with whom he helps educate the public about these beach-nesting birds and the challenges they face.
Black skimmers are a state threatened species, explains Taylor, “we only have about 3,600 left in the state.” The Lido Beach colony is made up of about 700 adults, he says, which makes up about 20 percent of the entire population of the species.
Nesting seabirds face many challenges, being that they nest on beaches, competing for space with humans and suffering the consequences of their impact. Seabirds tend to nest in shallow depressions on open ground, so their eggs and young are vulnerable to both human and predator disturbance, as well as the heat from the beating sun. The adult birds will take flight upon any sign of danger, leaving their eggs and chicks exposed and vulnerable to getting trampled underfoot or eaten by opportunistic predators like gulls or crows which swoop in and grab an egg or a fluffy chick before the parents can return to defend their young. Dogs off-leash are also very dangerous to the exposed nests.
At this point in the summer, most of the chicks on the Lido colony are large enough that predation is now less of a concern. But earlier in the season, Taylor did see gulls and crows take eggs and young chicks on a number of occasions. “Gulls, just like crows, are a human subsidized species, so there are more of them here because we’re here,” explains Taylor, “We probably saw them take about a dozen chicks.” But since Taylor and his volunteers are unable to patrol the beach 24/7, he assumes the total predation count to be several times that.
As the nesting season is winding down the chicks grow in their flight feathers in place of the downy fuzz of their youth. Their coloration is a marbled pattern of blacks, tans and browns to help protect the still-flightless birds, their feathers allowing them to blend into the sand-scape. Hunched low, they remain fairly inert until they catch wind that their parent might be returning with food, upon which they burst to life as they toddle quickly towards the adult as it alights on the sand, holding their flightless wings pathetically drooped while begging incessantly, clamoring to be fed.
“We have about two-hundred and fifty chicks on the ground,” says Taylor, “so the colony has been successful this year.” Much of this can be attributed to the efforts made by Taylor and the volunteers, who patrol the outskirts of the colony daily and educate beachgoers about the birds and the issues they face.
Skimmers and other seabirds aren’t just affected by humans or predators, they also facea future of rising sea levels due to climate change which could mean the loss of the sandy beaches that they require for nesting. That is why our continued monitoring and protection of these birds is crucial, as is the education to raise awareness about these birds and the dangers they confront every day.
The crisp white and black of the birds contrast beautifully against the emerald waters as they cavort through the air. Soon their young will join them and grow into adulthood to one day raise young on the very same beach where they were hatched. So long as these important habitats are protected, we can hope to enjoy these birds for countless seasons to come.
How you can help protect beach-nesting birds:
-Never enter areas posted with shorebird/seabird signs.
-Avoid driving on or beyond the upper beach.
-Drive slow enough to avoid running over chicks.
-Keep dogs on a leash and away from areas where birds may be nesting.
-Keep cats indoors, and do not feed stray cats.
-Properly dispose of trash to keep predators away.
-Do not fly kites near areas where birds may be nesting.
-When birds are aggravated, you are too close.
Learn more about protecting our coastal nesting birds here!