Black skimmer population diminishing in Texas


At one time, she saw about 100 of the black-and-red-beaked birds along the causeway.

But through the years, their numbers have diminished, and Minter finds herself looking harder for those once-abundant birds.

"It makes you concerned that they were disturbed by people that were not paying attention or ignoring the signs," Minter said.

The area around the causeway, one of the birds' favorite nesting grounds, has grown into a popular fishing spot, which may have agitated the birds and caused them to leave, said Beth Wilson, communications manager for the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program.

Although the species is thriving as a whole, the black skimmer population has significantly decreased in Nueces County and Texas. One of the main reasons deals with the disturbance of their nesting habitats by humans and predators causing them to flee their nests and young.

In 1974, the black skimmer population was estimated at 4,000 pairs in the county, according to the Texas Coastal Waterbirds Census. In 2005, the population decreased to about 700 pairs, more than an 80 percent decrease. During that same period, the state has seen a decrease from 11,000 to 4,000 pairs.

David Newstead, a Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program biologist, said it is possible for the population to increase, but it would require immediate attention from the public.

"Those populations could rebound pretty quickly -- like in 10 years or so," he said. "That would require a big ask of people to not disturb them."

Because of the amount of disturbance, black skimmers tend to abandon their nests, leaving eggs and chicks susceptible to predators or high temperatures.

"With the heat of the day, their eggs can cook; gulls can take the eggs or chicks," Newstead said.

This relocation, often during the middle of their nesting season, isn't always successful. Aside from the potential for further disruptions by predators and humans, severe weather also could be detrimental.

If Tropical Storm Don had raised the water levels of the bays by at least a foot, chicks and eggs may have been washed away. In the Laguna Madre area, there are approximately 300 eggs in nests that could have washed away, Newstead said.

If those birds hadn't relocated so late in the season, those chicks could have developed enough to fly to safety, he said.

Newstead is managing nesting areas to ensure successful reproduction by posting advisory signs, creating public awareness and capturing potential predators. In October, he and a group of volunteers plan to clean up debris that washes up on islands near the causeway. In the past, they have found fishing lines with dead birds tangled in them.

Black skimmers nest on the ground on sandy or shelly areas, and they dig a depression where they lay their eggs. However, sometimes the choice of location can be disastrous.

Last year, a hit-and-run incident in Rockport left at least 39 black skimmer chicks dead when someone moved a barricade meant to protect them at Rockport Beach Park and drove through the area. The driver was never found.

Human disturbance may be one of the biggest threats to the birds, but it can be avoided.

People approaching or passing nesting areas will know they are too close once the birds leave their nests and start flying around the area. At that point, it is best to leave so the birds may return to their young, Newstead said.

Boaters also should stay about three casts from the edge of islands when birds are present, he said.

"Most people, when they realize their potential impact, are pretty respectful about it," he said.

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