Thursday, October 28, 2021

Chicks Galore at Sand Dollar Island

One of the best viewing areas to see black skimmers feeding their newly hatched chicks is on Marco’s Sand Dollar Island. There you can watch both parents taking turns bringing back fish for their hungry chicks.

According to Adam DiNuovo, biologist for Audubon Florida and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, at last count there were about 400 pairs of black skimmers, and the nursery is busy with 400-500 chicks.

The black skimmer (rynchops niger) finds its way back into Sand Dollar Island each year around early spring. They nest on the sand in groups or colonies of one to several hundred pairs. They usually lay three to five eggs and are incubated by both parents for 23-25 days. Chicks are flight ready in about 28-30 days.

The black skimmer has a very unusual feeding style; it “skims” the surface of the water with its black-tipped bright red bill. The lower bill is longer than the upper, which allows it to cut through the water and grab a small fish. The black skimmer is the only bird in the world with this ability to “skim” for fish with its lower jaw. They are nicknamed “sea dogs” for making an unusual barking sound as they glide over the water’s surface looking for fish.

It has been a very challenging nesting season for the black skimmers on Sand Dollar Island. As soon as nesting season began, the crows were relentless going after the eggs. Newly-hatched chicks are also a favorite target of the crows.

According to DiNuovo, nesting season is a finely tuned schedule for shorebirds like the least terns and black skimmers. Tropical Storm Alberto delayed the nesting season by at least two weeks, which brought the chicks’ arrival into the warmer summer days.

With food sources dwindling during the early summer’s warmer months, parent skimmers were observed returning to the nest with less food to feed the chicks. This may negatively affect the size and survival chances for the chicks.

The persistent red tide may also affect the availability of shallow small bait fish, which is a crucial food source for nesting shorebirds and their young chicks. As the water warms up, forage fish go into deeper waters.

As you visit the black skimmer nursery, please observe from a distance. Parents are highly agitated and may leave a newly hatched chick exposed to the hot sun. Some older chicks may wander closer to the water’s edge – and they are not easy to see.

During this critical hatching period, the youngest chicks are most vulnerable to crow predation. Please make sure not to leave any food items on the beach. Deposit your trash inside a lidded trash can. For beach condos and businesses on the beach and on Collier Boulevard, please make sure to cover your trash cans.

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