Shorebird shepherds: Audubon works to protect Tigertail’s black skimmer colony

Lance Shearer

Black skimmers chicks need what all babies need – food, parenting, and protection from danger as they navigate the most vulnerable moment in their lives. Marco Island is host to the largest black skimmer colony in the state, at the end of the Tigertail Beach spit, said Marianne Korosy, and vitally is important to the preservation of this unique species. Korosy, with a Ph.D. in conservation biology, is director of bird conservation for Audubon Florida.

Right now is a critical time for the baby black skimmer chicks that have just hatched out by the hundred, and are rapidly growing, hoping to survive until, after about four weeks, barely longer than the time they spent in the egg, they will be able to fly. The chicks are threatened by predation from other species, notably laughing gulls that continually swooped over the colony, the baking heat of the summer sun, and the intrusion of careless humans.

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Monday morning as the sun rose, Adam DiNuovo, Audubon Florida’s shorebird monitoring and stewardship project manager for Collier and Lee Counties, headed out in a skiff from the Rookery Bay field station on Shell Island Rd. DiNuovo, the anchor steward who works under him, and a cadre of dedicated volunteers do their bit to monitor and protect the skimmers as they raise their broods.

Each pair of black skimmers typically lays several eggs, up to five, although it is unlikely that all will live to fledge, where they fly on their own and can feed themselves. Black skimmers occupy a unique niche in the area’s ecosystem, fishing by skimming just above the water’s edge – hence the name – with their lower bill in the water and scooping up unsuspecting fish.

Fishing was good this morning, and the adult skimmers were regularly flying back to the colony with fish to feed themselves as well as their chicks. One skimmer carried a needlefish almost as long as itself and had to fend off other birds who wanted a piece.

The chicks, with the earliest hatchlings noticeably larger than their younger siblings, wandered around in the early morning light, sometimes too far. Several adults mobbed one chick that strayed into what they considered their turf, and attacked it with their stiletto-sharp beaks, although apparently just teaching it a lesson, as the chick got up and skittered away.

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DiNuovo stepped in, rather than letting nature take its unforgiving course, when one chick blundered to the water of the open Gulf and shepherded the baby back to the colony. The section of the beach occupied by the skimmers, legally designated a Critical Wildlife Area, is marked by signage and posts connected by strings, warning people to stay away, but the birds can’t read, and don’t necessarily stay in their lane.

Unlike the striking white and black plumage of the adults, set off by a prominent red and black bill, the chicks are wonderfully camouflaged for the sand, and also burrow down into it, making them very difficult to see.

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“Birds don’t pay attention to the signs,” said Di Nuovo. To help out, people should “watch where you put your feet, leave your dog at home, and pack out your trash” – garbage can attract predators.

And of course, don’t let off fireworks, which is illegal on Marco Island in any event. Audubon stewards will be on the beach each day of the holiday weekend, helping the black skimmers and educating human visitors.

Before the chicks are able to fly, DiNuovo will return to band some of them, and on Monday morning, he spotted several he had attached ankle bands to in 2017. The good news is that 2019 is shaping up as a banner year for shorebird chicks along Florida’s coastlines.

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“Birds are many things to people,” said Korosy. “They are beautiful to watch, and they are at the top of the food web. Their health provides us with an indicator of the health of the near-shore marine environment, and the land next to the ocean.”

If you are interested in becoming a beach steward or participating in coastal conservation volunteer activities, send an email with your name, telephone number, and general location to flconservation@audubon.org.