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Black Skimmer Survival by Degrees

Photo: Britt Brown/FWC.

In 2014, the National Audubon Society released a landmark climate report detailing the risks faced by our favorite bird species as climate change effects are felt across the country and across the world. In 2019, the report was completely revised to included more observations, more data, and more threats.

Audubon’s new science shows that two-thirds (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is that our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76% of species at risk.

Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of community-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change. Our work defines the climate conditions birds need to survive, then maps where those conditions will be found in the future as the Earth’s climate responds to increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

It’s the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, and it’s the closest thing we have to a field guide to the future of North American birds.

Photo: William Pully/Audubon Photography Awards.

In the summer of 2019, banded Black Skimmers A16 and A44 re-found each other on an urban Pinellas County beach for the third summer in a row, ready to begin the breeding season.

Audubon coastal biologists protect and steward state-Threatened Black Skimmer colonies nesting on Florida beaches each year. Until recently, little information was known about the age, birthplace, and winter whereabouts of the nesting skimmers at these sites. In 2015, Audubon Florida - in partnership with Dr. Beth Forys of Eckerd College - began to band skimmer chicks in an ongoing effort to unravel the mysteries of their annual movements. In 2017, Audubon staff began banding skimmer chicks on Marco Island. With all the sighting records of banded birds since 2015, we know a lot more about the birds’ stories, especially that of bird A16 and A44.

After two years of trying unsuccessfully, this pair finally fledged chicks! But future breeding success could be dampened by a "perfect" storm: continued coastal development and rising sea levels.

Species with strictly coastal habitat needs like the Black Skimmer are risk-takers. Coastal storms can overwash nests and flightless chicks and erode large chunks of habitat with significant effects on a region’s population. The direct and indirect effects of human activity on Florida's beach-nesting birds have been largely negative. Audubon's climate model introduces additional challenges for this striking and already beleaguered denizen of barrier-island beaches and back bays. Climatically suitable areas are forecast to decline by nearly two-thirds in winter.* Add to that the specter of rising sea levels, and the Black Skimmer’s future looks challenging, to say the least.

*climate.audubon.org

Note: To return to the page after watching the video, hover your mouse on the top right-hand corner of the screen and click the small "x."

Black Skimmer Predicted Range with No Warming: Summer
Black Skimmer Predicted Range with 1.5 Degrees of Warming: Summer
Black Skimmer Predicted Range with 3 Degrees of Warming: Summer
Range Maps: Stamen Design

Black Skimmers look like masked bandits with short legs, black and white plumage, and a black and orange bill. The lower half of their bill is longer than the upper, enabling them to “skim” across the water with their mouth partly open and bill dragging across the surface in search of a fish. Audubon Florida continues to work with partners to ensure a bright future for this unique species.

Black Skimmers are affected by more than just climate change. Oil spills continue to be a threat, as crude oil can coat feathers and fill the food chain with chemical compounds harmful to both adult skimmers and their chicks.

What is Audubon doing for the skimmer?

Audubon partners with agencies, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers across the state to monitor and patrol the most vulnerable beach-nesting colonies. Beach stewards rope off nesting sites, educate visitors on the importance and wonder of the nesting season, and alert wildlife officers to nest disturbances.

In Pinellas and Collier Counties, Audubon Florida has embarked on an ambitious banding program to better understand population dynamics, habitat use during different parts of the year, and cross-state/cross-Gulf movements. By promoting the re-sighting of banded birds, we learn more about skimmers across the country and across the world.

Photo: Tara Tanaka/Audubon Photography Awards.

Our Success

The sand-strewn beach along Little Talbot Island is one of the few places remaining on Florida’s Atlantic coast with no buildings and few roads in sight. Located just south of Amelia Island where Nassau County and Duval County meet, the emergent sands within Nassau Sound have long provided the perfect topography for beach-nesting birds, with direct access to fish and no trees to harbor predators. This summer, “Big Bird Island” (now connected to Little Talbot) provided one of the most successful nesting seasons in recent memory.

Unfortunately, nesting success here has been stymied in recent years because the same beaches that attract the birds also attract people. Despite its remoteness and previous attempts to provide a buffer, the northern end of the Little Talbot Island has been a favorite recreational spot for thousands of beachgoers and boaters each year, especially when waters are warm and beach-nesting birds are trying to raise their young.

New Critical Wildlife Area signage erected on Big Bird Island clearly conveys the message of "No Landing" to boaters and kayakers approaching from waterside. Thanks to the dedication of the Timucuan Shorebird Partnership, which includes staff and volunteers from Audubon Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Park Service, and the City of Jacksonville, beach-bird nesting failure at Little Talbot Island may be a thing of the past.

“The nesting success on Little Talbot Island this year was the result of many years of effort,” explains Chris Farrell, Audubon’s Northeast Florida Policy Associate. Five species of beach-nesting birds successfully raised chicks on Little Talbot Island: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, Gull-billed Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and Black Skimmers.

Decades ago, thousands of birds used the emergent islands in Nassau Sound, but shifting sands relocated and reduced their nesting habitat. With fewer areas capable of supporting imperiled beach-nesting birds, protection of the remaining nest sites became paramount. Recognizing the need for additional management tools, Audubon collaborated with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to both renew and enlarge the Critical Wildlife Area designation for beach-nesting bird habitat in Nassau Sound.

The FWC's Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) program is one way the state provides extra protection for concentrations of wildlife where there is the greatest exposure to human activity. CWAs are discrete sites, such as mangrove islands or sandbars, where species gather daily or seasonally for essential activities, such as breeding, feeding, or resting.

In 2015, Audubon started to work closely with FWC and other stakeholders to reestablish this protection for Little Talbot Island. Audubon’s Chris Farrell, FWC staff, and long-time advocate Pat Leary presented information on the importance of the sound for nesting birds during FWC's local stakeholder meetings.

On November 16, 2016, they got good news: the old "Bird Islands" CWA was redesignated as the "Nassau Sound Islands" CWA in the vote that created 13 new CWAs in the state and improved five existing ones. The most critical aspect of the redesignation was the inclusion of the northern tip of Little Talbot Island – a spit of sand once known as "Big Bird Island" but had since shifted and attached to the end of Little Talbot Island.

The "Big Bird" area at the northern end of Little Talbot is ideal habitat for beach-nesting birds and has been the site of nesting attempts by Least Terns and American Oystercatchers. Unfortunately, these attempts yielded few fledged chicks, if any. Park staff marked off the nesting habitat each year, but they could never post an area large enough to prevent disturbance to the birds for fear of losing signs to the dynamic tides of the region.

Fortunately, the new CWA designation brought additional resources and focus to this nesting site. The most significant improvement was the addition of seven large "No Landing" signs, installed around the breeding area to let boaters know they could not land and disembark near the nesting birds.

Additionally, Audubon Florida and FWC have hired seasonal staff to steward this remote nesting site, where it can be difficult to recruit help from volunteers. FWC also produced informational postcards explaining the closure of the nesting area with details on its location and a map. Park rangers hand out cards at the station, as do stewards when speaking with visitors on-site.

Continued efforts, including meeting with local outfitters, installing signs at boat ramps, and outreach programs are helping to improve compliance with the CWA closure. Stewards like Lindsay Partymiller have been critical in this regard, intercepting more than 150 boat landings and speaking with over 500 people at the nesting site this year alone.

The cumulative result of these partnership efforts has been a significant increase in nesting success by several species. Least Terns, which managed to raise a few chicks to fledgling age at the site last year, built more than 100 nests in 2019 with dozens of fledgling chicks. 2019’s big surprise? The return of sizable numbers of nesting Black Skimmers and Gull-billed Terns. Skimmers built a whopping thirty nests, and at least 25 chicks survived. Gull-billed Terns had more than twenty nests and many successful offspring. Four pairs of American Oystercatchers also produced young, with Wilson’s Plovers rounding out the list of successful nesters at this site, bringing the total number of species to five. Final estimates of fledgling success will be tallied after a thorough review of all survey data.

Farrell notes, “The positive response from multiple species is a testament to how improved management can benefit our beach-nesting birds. Hard work from our partners at Little Talbot Island State Park, FWC, and Audubon's bird stewards resulted in a successful nesting season at the Nassau Sound Islands CWA and should inspire others to replicate their success.”

For more than a century Audubon has encouraged people to take care of the places that make Florida special. Using science to guide our priorities and birdlife to measure ecosystem health, Audubon promotes stewardship and appreciation of public land and water so people experience and cherish Florida’s natural beauty and wildlife.

Photo: Peter Cavanagh/Audubon Photography Awards.

What can I do?

You can help beach-nesting birds raise their next generation of chicks to adulthood by following some simple guidelines when you visit the beach:

Respect posted areas, even if you don’t see any birds inside; if birds dive-bomb you, carefully move away as there may be a nest nearby; ensure no trash or food remnants are left behind; and always keep dogs on a leash, on board your boat, or at home.

Utilize natural solutions to shoreline erosion, including living shorelines and oyster reefs. Conservation of wetlands and marshy areas is critical not only to Black Skimmers, but for coastal resilience as well.

Become a beach steward and protect vulnerable nesting colonies from disturbance each summer.

When you see Black Skimmers with leg bands, please report them to the Florida Banded Birds Resightings website. Each re-sighted band provides critical information on how we can better conserve and protect Black Skimmers in the face of ongoing climate change.

Photo: Brian Kushner

We already know what we need to do to help the birds we love.

Note: To return to the page after watching the video, hover your mouse on the top right-hand corner of the screen and click the small "x."

Conclusion

We already know what we need to do to help the birds we love.

Protect the places birds need now and in the future.

In addition to taking personal action at home, we must urge action at state and federal levels to address the root causes of a changing climate.

We know how to reduce global warming and already have a lot of the tools and solutions at our fingertips — what we need are more people who are committed to making sure those solutions are put into practice.

Audubon’s work is solutions-driven rather than by ideology. We understand how overwhelmed a lot of people feel by more bad climate news. Birds tell us; it’s time to act, and there is still time to get this right if we take action now and demand action from our elected officials at every level of government.

We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an urgent speed and on a wide scale from every sector of the economy — electricity generation, agriculture, transportation, commercial and residential buildings, and industrial processes.

Find Model Ordinances to Use in Your Community

Change begins with you! Changes at the local level can add up to big savings—in greenhouse gas emissions and taxpayer dollars. Improving the energy efficiency and clean energy mix of your city or county and keeping your waterways free of polluting nutrients can fight climate change and harmful algal blooms. To learn more and be connected with others interested in this work, email flconservation@audubon.org and sign up to receive our electronic newsletter for opportunities to lend your voice to Florida and its climate.

Curious about what your city or county could do? Here are some of the common ways small communities can make a huge difference. To make it even easier, we’ve included examples—model ordinances—that your city or county staff can consider as a starting point for crafting the solutions that work best in your community.

There’s no time to waste. Let’s get started today!