A welcome surprise!
By: Sabrina Cobb
Olivia and I had the pleasure of joining Fallan Batchelor, Coastal Stewardship Coordinator for the City of Orange Beach Coastal Resources, on a beach-nesting bird survey. The location to be surveyed has been known in the past to provide the perfect habitat and an adequate amount of food resources for beach-nesting birds, specifically least terns. So far this season we have unfortunately not documented any successful least tern nests at this site. In more recent years we have noticed an increase in predator and human disturbance which could be contributing to the decrease in nesting activity. Some examples of these disturbances include non-native coyote presence, as they are attracted to areas with human activity and trash, and human disturbance within fenced off protected areas.
On July 1st, we were happily surprised by an unexpected pair of black skimmers that had chosen to nest in the middle of the beach! Black skimmers are a medium-sized seabird that usually nest in large colonies on sandy beaches and some offshore islands. Their plumage is mostly black on top with white feathers underneath. The biggest identifying characteristic of this bird is its uniquely designed beak! Black skimmer beaks are bright reddish-orange at the base with black extending to the tip. If you look close enough you will notice that the upper beak is shorter than the lower. This adaptation is used by the black skimmer when it is foraging for prey, they fly low over the water’s surface only allowing the lower beak to be submerged. When the skimmer feels a fish it will quickly snap its beak shut securing it’s catch! This foraging technique is also how these birds were given their name.
When making nests, the black skimmer will start by finding an open sandy beach where it will make small, bowl-shaped depressions commonly called scrapes. Once a clutch of 2-5 black-spotted eggs are laid, incubation by both adults will take place for about 21-23 days. After the chicks have hatched, they will be totally reliant on their parents for food for about a month. Black skimmer chicks start out with a beak of equal proportion. This helps them pick up any small fish that parents bring back that get dropped onto the sand. We are pretty excited to have these special birds nesting on our coast and are looking forward to sharing more developments on the nest in the weeks to come!