Black Skimmers are one of the most striking birds on the East Coast: These black-and-white birds with the massive underslung orange lower jaws cruise the waters of beaches and back-bays from Florida all the way to Maine. But for all of their conspicuousness, researchers didn’t know how far skimmers traveled during migration, if they returned to the same nest year after year, how they picked mates, or even how long they typically lived. But all that has changed with Black Skimmer banding programs led by Audubon and partners, and the information we’ve learned has profound implications for skimmer conservation going forward.
The programs, the first of which began in partnership with Dr. Beth Forys of Eckerd College in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 2015, have spread across the Atlantic Flyway. Projects in Florida, North Carolina, New York, and other states all attach tags to skimmer chicks that anyone with a good pair of binoculars can read and then report back to a central database.
To band Black Skimmers, Audubon biologists carefully capture young chicks near their nests and outfit them with colorful bands around their legs, each carrying a unique code. Once they fledge from their nests, the banded skimmers are found again by biologists and birdwatchers in places as far afield as Canada and Cuba. These “field-readable” bands also have drawn the interest of photographers who are proud to report banded birds and submit their photos.
The Tale of Black 99
That’s exactly what happened with “Black 99,” a Black Skimmer named for the color and numbers on its leg band. Audubon North Carolina coastal biologist Lindsay Addison banded Black 99 last summer as a chick on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, one of many coastal sanctuaries Audubon protects and manages. In April 2020, Lindsay got a report from her colleagues in Florida—Black 99 had appeared in Naples and Siesta Key, Florida.
Just last month, he was spotted again, this time in a little flock of other skimmers at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Not quite in his hometown—that would have been Wrightsville Beach, almost 200 miles to the south—but back in his home state. In the second year of his life, he traveled over 700 miles to return from a season in southwest Florida.
Many other second-year birds that grew up with Black 99 have returned to their birthplace on Wrightsville Beach this year. Skimmers typically start nesting in their third year, so these young birds were probably prospecting for a prime 2021 nest site.
“It was great to see them back as adults,” said Addison. “We can see our work protecting nesting sites pay off when the birds come back each year, but to know that a particular individual has returned is especially exciting.”
What Banding Can Tell Us About Non-migratory Skimmers
Florida not only hosts wintering skimmers from several other states, but also its own year-round residents. But little was known about the state’s nesting population—do they use the same nesting sites year after year, or do they select different sites over time?
Though many Black Skimmers return to their natal colony (i.e., their birthplace) to nest, Florida’s banding project is finding that a significant number seek new beaches and new colonies on which to breed. In Florida, some birds fly across the peninsula between Gulf and Atlantic coasts in spring and fall, while other birds, hatched on the Gulf Coast, head across the peninsula as juveniles and stay to become Atlantic Coast breeders on beaches or rooftops.
“Preliminary data suggests that we really need to focus on the region-wide importance of these breeding areas, in addition to protecting individual colonies,” Audubon Florida Biologist Adam DiNuovo said.
North Carolina Is a Hub of Skimmer Activity
The banding projects revealed that North Carolina’s position in the middle of the Atlantic Coast makes it an ideal place where birds from many states congregate during the migration season. Throughout the fall, Mason Inlet in southeastern North Carolina hosts large congregations of skimmers as a staging ground before continuing their flight south—but where did they end up each winter?
“Flocks start to build in late summer and early fall,” Addison said. “We’ll get over 2,000 skimmers on some surveys. Then, usually right around Thanksgiving, they’re gone. We suspected we were getting skimmers from all over their Atlantic range, just because the numbers were so high, but we couldn’t know for sure until banding around their range took off.”
In January 2016, Audubon North Carolina biologists saw their first banded skimmer, a visitor from New York that had been banded by New York City Audubon. As bird banding also took off in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia, more were re-sighted on the North Carolina coast.
Like counting out-of-state license plates at a highway rest stop, Audubon North Carolina staff members have recorded Black Skimmers at Mason Inlet with bands from every state with a banding program, from Massachusetts to Florida. “The banding itself is important, but so is the re-sighting. We don’t learn anything if we, and others, don’t look for and report banded skimmers,” explains Addison.
What All of This Means for Skimmer Conservation
This research shows that conservation in just one state or coastal site is not enough—coastal birds need a series of stepping stones up and down the coast to raise their young, survive their migrations, and weather the winter. Audubon’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program works throughout the country to educate beachgoers to keep their distance from birds and to let birds rest in peace. And through Audubon’s coastal resilience strategy, we are working at the local, state, and national level to ensure that the beaches that these skimmers rely on are protected and restored, not just for birds and wildlife but also for the nearby coastal communities that are facing the effects of climate change.
It takes an entire community of people throughout the Atlantic Coast to ensure these birds are thriving, from professional biologists, to devoted volunteers with Audubon’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program, photographers, or beachgoers who just happened to notice something interesting on a bird’s leg. Audubon’s chapters, state offices, and national coastal strategy are committed to protecting these birds and all the many different places they need.
If you’ve seen a banded bird, you can report your sighting at http://www.reportband.gov/.
Contributors to this article include Adam DiNuovo, Renee Wilson, and Erika Zambello at Audubon Florida, Lindsay Addison and Ben Graham at Audubon North Carolina, and Martha Harbison at National Audubon Society.