Photos by author.
From Sarasota, I took the bridge to Lido Key, one of multiple barrier islands that line the west coast of the state of Florida. Following the sounds of the seabirds I walked out onto the grainy, off-white sands of Lido Beach, which overlooks the gleaming blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Yellow signs emblazoned with black silhouettes of puffball chicks signaled beachgoers and tourists to be aware: “Bird Crossing” as in, there are birds nesting on this beach– lots of them. Black and white seabirds called Black Skimmers dotted the sand and, upon closer inspection, marbled brown chicks, now nearly able to fly, crouched low, their camouflage patterning allowing them to blend into the landscape.
A young man with a floppy hat scanned the seabird nesting colony with binoculars. It was still early, so there were more birds on the popular beach than human-folk.
Greg Taylor introduced himself as the Shorebird Project Coordinator for Audubon Florida. Gesturing toward the birds, he explained his seasonal position protecting and monitoring nesting 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.
The skimmer colony bustled with activity, adults yammering at each other, full-grown chicks with pathetically drooping wings, clamoring after their parents, begging for food. Black skimmers are a state threatened species, explains Taylor, “we only have left about 3,600 in the state.” The Lido 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 nest in shallow depressions in the sand, 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 before the parents can return to defend their young. Dogs off-leash are also very dangerous to the exposed nests.
All of this is a big part of why Taylor is there, not only does he monitor the skimmer population, counting chicks and adults as soon as he arrives at the colony while keeping an eye out for predation, he also manages a group of rotating volunteers who help protect the colony and educate the public about the birds.
Flying on long, thin wings, skimmers will glide just above the gentle swells of the Gulf, in search of tiny fish near the surface. Mouths open wide, they’ll drop their long lower beak to slice through the water as they sail along, wingtips nearly touching the surface. When the sensitive orange and black beak detects a fish, it will snap shut at nearly the same instant, trapping the salty morsel in its “jaws”.
“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 help educate beachgoers about the birds and the issues they face.
Skimmers and other seabirds aren’t just affected by humans or predators, they also face a 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.
-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.
Tags: beaches, birds, black skimmer, climate change, florida, gulf of mexico, gulls, habitat, human disturbance, lido beach, monitoring, predators, research, sand, sarasota, sea level rise, seabirds, volunteer