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Posts Tagged ‘black skimmers’

Beachnester Buzz: Drum roll please, the 2016 breeding results for beachnesters are…

Monday, August 15th, 2016
NEW, WEEKLY UPDATES FROM NEW JERSEY’S BEACH NESTING BIRD PROJECT TEAM

by Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager

There are many ways to gauge success for our beachnesting bird project. We look at how well our management tools work, the effectiveness of our partnerships, and how well our educational efforts work, to name a few qualitative measures we use. At some point, however, it comes down to cold hard numbers, how well did the birds do in a particular season and over the long-term. We are at that point in the season, and for the most part, I am happy to report it has been an excellent breeding year. I will caution that these are still preliminary figures, some quality checking of the data needs to be done before they are final, but the trends are clear.

One of a "bumper crop" of piping plover fledglings produced in New Jersey in 2016. Photo courtesy of Kevin Knutsen.

One of a “bumper crop” of piping plover fledglings produced in New Jersey in 2016. Photo courtesy of Kevin Knutsen.

First up are piping plovers. We will come in at ~115 pairs statewide, up modestly from the 108 pairs in 2015, and the second consecutive year of an increase after hitting our historic low of just 92 pairs in 2014. So, we have climbed back closer to our long-term average, but there is still room to improve. The really good news is our productivity this year – close to a statewide record at 1.37 chicks fledged per pairs – puts us in the position to continue our population increase. If trends hold, because piping plovers demonstrate high site (or region) fidelity, when we produce a lot of fledglings, our breeding population rises in the next year or two. With three straight years of well above average fledgling rates for New Jersey now in the books, our prospects look good in the short term for our breeding population levels.

Least terns and black skimmers, which nest in colonies, sometimes numbering hundreds (or even thousands), are more challenging to count and assess, but we had at least modest success this year for both species. As is typical, our least tern colonies were variable, with some completely failing and others being highly productive. The Monmouth County region, one of our strongholds for least terns in New Jersey, didn’t have one colony that was a standout but most of them had at least some success. In South Jersey, our two largest colonies at Holgate (EB Forsythe NWR) and Seaview Harbor were very successful and helped make up for losses and failures at other colonies. The majority of our state’s black skimmers are concentrated in one large colony at Seaview Harbor, and although skimmers are our latest nesters (so the season isn’t quite over for them), they appear to have been very successful there, which means a good season overall for the state.

We also track American oystercatchers, although only for the portion that nest on the barrier beaches and spits. Because the biggest percentage of oystercatchers in the state nest on back bay and marsh islands, we cannot determine true statewide population or productivity levels, but the population on the beach habitat appears to be rising in recent years. Typically breeding success is lower for oystercatchers on the beach habitat due to high levels of human disturbance and predators, but productivity has been relative high the past two years. Of particular note this year was Stone Harbor Point, where a record number of 27 pairs nested and produced over 30 fledglings.

The reality is our beachnester staff works just as hard in years when the birds do poorly, as when they do well like this year, but it is SO much more rewarding when we have a good season. So as we wrap up the season, we are all feeling in a bit of a celebratory mode now!


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Beachnester Buzz: A Day in the Life of a Beachnester

Monday, August 8th, 2016

NEW, WEEKLY UPDATES FROM NEW JERSEY’S BEACH NESTING BIRD PROJECT TEAM

by Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager

 

For this week’s installment, I thought it would be fun to have you tag along with me on a day in the field, so you can get a sampling of what goes into our beach nesting bird program. Let’s call it, “A Day in the Life of a Beachnester.”

 

skimmer

Black skimmer and chicks at our Belmar colony where we recently banded the young before they could fly. Photo courtesy of Jersey Shore Photography.

Today it is an early 4 am rise to beat the beach crowds and heat, as we are banding black skimmers at our Belmar colony. This is the first time our program has banded skimmers –  it is a collaborative effort with other organizations/agencies in both New York and New Jersey – we hope to find out more about their survival, longevity, and movement, both local and long distance. Everything goes well, we are able to corral and band about 35 chicks in less than an hour. This part of the day represents the science portion of the beach nesting bird project, science for the sake of study and a better understanding of our birds, but more importantly to gather information to help us manage and recover endangered species.

 

With no time to spare, it is now off to Leonardo along Sandy Hook Bay where CWF is hosting a summer wildlife experience for kids. No surprise, I am the guest today to teach the kids about beach nesting birds. I explain why piping plovers and American oystercatchers are at risk, and then give them a chance to use a high powered birding scope to try to read bands I have placed on decoy birds. We definitely have some budding biologists in the mix. Education is key to our project, unlike other endangered species that mostly live out of sight or reach, beachnesters spend the breeding season on the same beaches visited by millions of tourists and residents. If they are going to learn to “share the shore” with our endangered birds, outreach is essential.

 

beachnester buzz plant

Sea beach amaranth, a rare plant, that shares the beach with our nesting shorebirds and also is protected.

Next up is a stop at Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park, one of our important nesting areas in Monmouth County. For most of the season we are erecting and adjusting fence to protect nesting areas, but today we are working with the park to reduce the fence, as many of our birds have successfully nested and started to leave the area. First we count and locate any remaining least terns – these surveys are the base of our project – we need this data to track population trends and seasonal productivity as metrics of progress towards recovery. Before we remove any fence at this site, we also conduct surveys of sea beach amaranth, an endangered plant that shares the beach with our nesting birds. We locate a few plants and that dictates how we readjust the fence, the plants need protection from trampling by beachgoers or vehicles used by the park to maintain their beach.

 

 

Coordination with municipalities or other land owners that host beach nesting birds is a critical part of our project, as their activities can impact nesting success as much as beachgoer’s recreational use of the beach. So there is one more stop today to assess whether a maintenance request can be granted in a way that won’t put birds at risk. That done, it is time to start the two hour drive back to our office in Cape May County. I am ready for a nap, but no luck, as the truck becomes a mobile office to take care of other unattended business (while someone else drives of course). There are calls with several other towns, check-ins with our seasonal staff members that are spread out all along the coast, and finally dealing with a broken down vehicle (not ours fortunately) and a person who refused to take their dog off a nesting site.

 

Back at the office, it is one last check of email, entering a little bit of the data we collected today, and finally time to head home. Every day is a little different, but this day has been a good cross-section of the range of things we do on the project. It is tempting to think we just pop up fence and signs and hope the birds do well, but protection and recovery of our endangered beach nesting birds requires a comprehensive strategy addressing all the factors that impact nesting success.

 

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A Tale of Two Colonies

Thursday, September 24th, 2015
An Insider’s View of New Jersey’s Skimmer Nation

by Laura Hardy and Pam Prichard, Beach Nesting Bird Field Technicians

"Where's Waldo" - Black Skimmer Edition, as the colony takes flight. Photo by Sushanth Allapalli.

“Where’s Waldo” – Black Skimmer Edition, as the colony takes flight. Photo by Sushanth Allapalli.

 

by Laura Hardy:

New Jersey’s largest breeding colony of black skimmers is an uncommon joy. I’ve stood many hours this season totally bemused by these boisterous barking birds. I’m thrilled when, en masse, the colony takes flight right over my head, in the purest National Geographic moment I might ever experience. However, as the colony’s primary monitor, my job isn’t to be dazzled by the birds – those candy-corn bills, the funny barking calls, the gorgeous choreography of their flight – instead it’s to conduct biweekly counts of the birds in order to monitor the colony’s size and productivity.

 

Every summer for the past several years, about 1,000 black skimmer pairs have nested on the little stretch of beach known as Seaview Harbor Marina; nearly 2,600 birds at its peak this season. Black skimmers, plus least and common terns, gather there in an incredibly noisy colony. Piping plovers and American oystercatchers nest on site also.

Laura Hardy, one of the blog authors, pauses as she attempts to count a colony of several thousand black skimmers. Photo by Donna L. Schulman.

Laura Hardy, one of the blog authors, pauses as she attempts to count a colony of several thousand black skimmers. Photo by Donna L. Schulman.

Have you ever tried to count thousands of raucous swirling birds while being dive-bombed by hot-tempered terns? The first time I tried, I didn’t know how or where to start. I started over at least eleven times that first day just to be sure I was right. Even still, my boss saw my number and said I had probably underestimated the size of the colony. Argh!

 

During the next count, I briefly considered multiplying my tally by some random number like 1.4297363 in order to accurately reflect the number of birds my boss thought I should be seeing. Instead, he bought me a step stool that made seeing the birds much easier. Nesting adults had become obscured by growing vegetation in the colony — but the stool made me even more of a target for the dive-bombing terns.

 

During the next couple of count periods, as the colony continued to grow, I worried that I was compensating for the natural tendency to underestimate by over-estimating. The last two or three counts, with the colony at its peak and chicks all over the beach, I thought for sure I was hallucinating – there simply could not be that many birds!

 

Finally, all kidding aside, I’ve come to believe there is some art to the task but, for the most part, I approach counting as methodically as possible. I count individual birds in the colony, by species, and then check my accuracy by counting in groups of five or ten birds, then 50 or 100. It takes some practice to be able to visualize what 100 or 500 birds look like, but it’s useful to be able to estimate the number of birds you see in a quick glance because the colony will flush any number of times during a typical count day.

 

Counting is further complicated by the need to estimate the number of birds on nests, and then later in the season, the number of chicks that are near-fledging or already fledged (able to fly). I also had the opportunity to test my accuracy against aerial photos of the colony and was pleasantly surprised with the accuracy of my on-the-ground count.

 

All of this counting and recounting is important because it allows us to measure the reproductive success of the colony. Black skimmers, and all of our beach-nesting birds, put a huge amount of effort into breeding and the numbers show the Seaview colony had a very productive season with a minimum of 1,000 fledglings so far, but likely as many as 1,500… and still counting!

A recently fledged black skimmer chick stands out against the colony. Photo by Laura Hardy.

A recently fledged black skimmer chick stands out against the colony. Photo by Laura Hardy.

 

by Pam Prichard:

To those of us that monitor beach nesting birds in Monmouth County, black skimmers were known only by a simple drawing on our AREA CLOSED signs that are attached to the fencing erected each spring to help protect endangered piping plovers and least terns. This season, however, held an exciting surprise as we witnessed the formation of a significant new back skimmer colony in New Jersey. Sandwiched between two immensely popular and busy beaches (Belmar and Avon),  the portion of Belmar’s beach along the Shark River Inlet played host to hundreds of least terns, common terns, a pair of American oystercatchers –  and our very own celebrity skimmers.

 

The skimmers quietly started arriving in mid-June, a few at a time. Were they just hanging out? Or were they actually going to start laying eggs? As more appeared day by day before our incredulous eyes, the reality became undeniable. The skimmers were nesting, for the first time since this habitat was set aside to be “natural.” And wow, what a colony it became, with nearly 200 adult Skimmers!

 

The nests were somewhat hidden among sea rocket and seaside goldenrod in the middle of the site, and didn’t attract too much attention at first. It wasn’t until the chicks began to hatch and grow that the real show began. The adults brought the chicks out to the front of the beach and their fan base began to form.

Black skimmer fledglings executing their "infamous" sand flop. Photo by Pamela Jo Capone.

Black skimmer fledglings executing their “infamous” sand flop. Photo by Pamela Jo Capone.

In the early mornings, the bird paparazzi (photographers) would arrive. Word had spread about the appearance of these strange looking, charismatic, comical yet majestic, and very photogenic birds. Everyone wanted a photo of adults skimming the water for fish or the tide line for crustaceans. They wanted to capture that moment when a chick was being brooded or fed. When the colony would all fly up at once, swooping and circling, making their distinctive barking puppy sounds, it was a stunning sight to see and hear. And let’s not forget the distinctive way they kick up sand, or flop down, as if their bill was just too heavy to hold up for one second longer. More than one person asked me if they were dead, and I admit, I would often hold my breath, until I thankfully saw some movement!

 

In addition to the steady stream of photographers, beachgoers visited the site every day to check on the busy colony and find out the latest news. People gathered in front of the fence to watch, enraptured, and to talk about what was going on. They returned day after day, bringing friends, and forging new friendships. Children looked through the scope to see the littlest of chicks, camouflaged so well in the sand. Many people told me they had never seen anything like this in Belmar. The black skimmers were the talk of the town!

 

A resident told me of growing up and playing behind a truck as it sprayed DDT. He said it has been wonderful to see so many species rebound in New Jersey, species like the osprey, eagle and now black skimmers right in Belmar. As of this date (they are not quite done yet), we have had nearly 150 skimmer chicks make it to the fledgling (flying) stage, no small accomplishment. The beach loving public here truly embraced the black skimmers, giving us lots of positive feedback. We all look forward to the return of our “celebrities” again next year.

 

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Laura Hardy and Pam Prichard are Beach Nesting Bird Field Technicians working in partnership with Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

 

Storm Report From the Field

Monday, August 29th, 2011
New Jersey’s Black Skimmers Survive Hurricane Irene

By Todd Pover, CWFNJ Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager

Black Skimmers liftoff at Seaview Harbor Marina where they survived Hurricane Irene.

Most of us spent the weekend worrying about the potential damage Hurricane Irene might inflict on our homes and loved ones. As a biologist, I was also concerned about the impact of the storm on our state’s wildlife, in my case, the beach nesting birds I help manage and protect.

Hurricanes and other severe weather can be a matter of life or death for nesting birds. Young chicks are particularly vulnerable, but even adults are at risk in the most extreme storms. Although most of our state’s beach nesting birds have completed the breeding cycle for the season, the majority of the Atlantic coast population of piping plovers and many least terns are in the midst of migration and would have been in the path of Hurricane Irene. We have no way of knowing for sure what impact the storm had on them, but long distance migration is tough on birds in the best of circumstances. Survival of young during their first year is typically very low so this was not a good start to the post breeding season.

We had two active nesting colonies remaining in New Jersey heading into the storm – a least tern colony at Townsend’s Inlet (Cape May County) and a black skimmer colony at Seaview Harbor Marina (Atlantic County). Residents in this area had a mandatory evacuation order, but our birds didn’t have that option. Today I completed an assessment of our beaches and nesting birds in the southern portion of the coast and I am happy to report that both the skimmer and tern colony escaped the storm largely unscathed.

Going into the storm, the tern colony was almost done for the season anyhow so any losses there would have been minimal. The skimmer colony, on the other hand, still had a number of chicks remaining and about 800 just fledged (able to fly) young. And over 1800 adults! This is the state’s only major skimmer colony representing nearly the entire state breeding population. So you can imagine it was a big relief when I walked out on the beach and heard thousands of raucous skimmers and saw there was no visible reduction in the colony’s size. Like our homes and loved ones, Irene appears to have spared our beachnesters.

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