Monday, July 09, 2007

Counting Skimmers in Cape Romain NWR

Last week, Ann Shahid and Jeff Mollenhauer teamed up with SCDNR and USFWS to count nesting Black Skimmers and other beach-nesting birds on two islands in Cape Romain NWR. Skimmers are fascinating birds! Their bottom bill is actually longer than their top bill, a trait that is extremely rare in the bird world. They use their long bottom bill to skim through the water and catch fish. Check out the picture of this one skimming!

Their first stop of the day was at the south end of Lighthouse Island. A quick assessment of the island revealed that there were no nesting skimmers! Apparently, high tides washed over the island recently and wiped out all of the skimmer nests there. Beach-nesting birds are often at the mercy of the tides since they lay their eggs directly on the sand just above the high tide line. The next stop at the north end of Cape Island was much more productive. We counted more than 300 Black Skimmer nests (see image), most of which had 2 – 4 eggs! We also found 26 Least Tern nests, most of which only had one egg. Least Terns are the smallest species of tern in North America. They use their sharp, thin bill to catch fish by diving head first into the water. Check out the picture of Least Tern standing near its egg.

Beach-nesting birds, such as Black Skimmers and Least Terns, are extremely sensitive to human disturbance and you should never walk through a nesting colony. When adult birds are forced away from the nests, it leaves the eggs and young exposed to extreme temperatures and predators. If you approach too closely to a colony, the birds will often call loudly and dive bomb you. Many of the nesting colonies along our coast are roped off and have signs warning you that the area is closed for nesting birds.

text and images by Jeff Mollenhauer

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