Saturday, December 4, 2021

Love is a Splendored Thing at the Black Skimmer Colony

Photos by Jean Hall | Offering fish is a common courtship ritual. This black skimmer brought a stick which was accepted by the female and they hooked up.

There are many different courtship behaviors birds use to attract a mate, and at Sand Dollar Island the Black Skimmers are in full courtship display. 

Black Skimmers are pretty simple and basic when it comes to their courting ritualsthe male usually presents a fish to the female accompanied by some wing flapping display. They may pair off together as a pre-nesting behavior or dig a scrape or sit on the scrape. As a pre-nesting posturelook for breast low and wingtips high in the air and tail feathers high. The male is often seen vigilantly resting or standing nearby the female. 

Brittany Piersma, FWC biologist and shorebird steward with a “CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC CWA” sign indicating, No Dogs, No Vehicles, and No Entry into Posted areas.

You might also witness a breathtaking aerial ballet with a pair of black skimmers soaring into an aerodynamic ascent, wings narrow, pointed and streamlined. Then in an aggressive swoop, feathers fly. The male lands on the female’s back as they cruise the wind as a synchronized duo. Then suddenly, both plunge from the sky and land softly on the soft sand together. It happens fast and soundless against the backdrop of a blue sky. 

The black skimmers begin the courtship process once they arrive at Sand Dollar Island. They start pairing up within a week of arrival. Singing is one common way birds attract a mate and for black skimmers, they call out to each other with a sound like a dog’s bark. 

Feeding or offering food is another common courtship ritual. A male black skimmer may bring a fish to the female, but sometimes a stick is acceptable to the female. Once the female accepts the fish or stick, the male mounts her, and copulation occurs.

Black Skimmer B68 was banded by Dr. Beth Forys in Pinellas, Florida, and was seen on Sand Dollar Island. Would be interesting if chicks show up for him.

A male may attract a mate by showing off its nestbuilding skills. The black skimmer flings sand to “scrape” up a depression to build a nest.  

According to Jean Hall, a shorebird steward and a frequent photographer of the black skimmer colony at Sand Dollar Island, she’s witnessed many black skimmers that have already paired up, and many looked like they were incubating. 

Brittany Piersma, a biologist and Shorebird Steward for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), shared that she counted around 690 individual birds at the colony last week. 

Some of the black skimmers were showing incubating postures such as sitting upright with neck elongated. Their wings tip low and close to the ground or maybe slightly spread out. Often, a mate stands nearby or lays its head over the mate’s shoulders. And they would often switch sitting on the egg. 

At the colony, sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between birds courting and birds with a nest. Birds who are courting or just loafing within the colony may flush easily. Incubating birds typically are less likely to flush. 

The nesting colony is roped off and posted with a no entry sign. Approach with caution as any disruption could harm bonding pairs. If mating is interrupted, the birds may choose a less suitable place or a less suitable mate or not mate at all. 

What to Do When Visiting the Nesting Colony at Sand Dollar Island 

  • Observe the nesting colony at a distance 
  • Avoid flushing the colony 
  • Take your trash back with you 
  • Leave your dogs at home 
  • Leave only your footprints 

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