Skimmers find home in Indian Rocks Beach

The black skimmer population is on the decline. This colony was seen in Indian Rocks Beach several weeks ago.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — For the first time in several years, black skimmers are now calling Indian Rocks Beach home. A colony of skimmers is now nesting on the beach and will be there for months, at least until the end of August.

Skimmers on Florida beaches are not uncommon, but they are in Indian Rocks Beach. Once a colony establishes a stretch of beach where they are comfortable they usually stay there.

In the case of the colony now on IRB, it was a matter of a short move from the next beach to the south.

“This is the same colony that was on Indian Shores,” said Holley Short of Audubon Florida. “They moved because there was too much disturbance where they were. They found a quieter and wider beach in Indian Rocks.”

Once the colony finds where it wants to be, they get to work to prepare for nesting.

“They will make a ‘scrape’ or a shallow depression where they will lay their eggs,” said Short. “The eggs are just on top of the sand. They then do what all birds do; they incubate their eggs until they hatch.”

That happens about three weeks later.

That is the stage of the IRB colony right now. Beach walkers might notice the birds sitting on the eggs and another peculiar behavior. In order to protect the eggs and the chicks from too much sun, the adult birds will stand over them with their wings slightly outspread to provide shade.

Short said skimmers have permanent mates and during the nesting season they share the duties. While one is guarding the nest, the other is down by the water cooling off or resting. That parent will also gather food. Then they switch positions.

All of that is interesting to watch, however Short cautions beachgoers to be careful around the skimmers. A wrong move could spell the end of the nesting season for the entire colony.

Audubon Florida has posted signs near the skimmer’s nesting site and ropes have been erected to keep people away. Still, people should be aware what will happen if they get too close, ropes or not.

“Watch out for the birds’ behavior,” said Short. “If they are agitated or if they dive-bomb you, that is their message that you are too close to a chick,” she said. “Walk around the flock, keep an eye on the birds; they will tell you if you are too close.”

Short said be mindful of what you bring with you to the beach because those objects could pose a threat to the birds.

“If you intend to fly a kite then do it away from the birds. What we see as a pretty thing they see as a predator,” she said. “Also keep pets away. Dogs look like predators to the skimmers and it could cause an entire colony to abandon the nests.”

She said recently in another area of Florida a small terrier spooked a colony and they just took off and left the nests behind.

Another concern of the Audubon Society is the Fourth of July.

“Don’t set off fireworks near a bird colony, in fact leave them at home,” said Short. “If not then go at least 300 feet away. The explosions cause the chicks to run around and the birds to fly away. There is always the potential for abandonment.”

The reason for the concern over the well-being of the skimmers is because they are on the protected list of Florida species.

“There is a decline in the skimmer population,” said Short. “It is partly due to climate change, which is causing a rising tide and a loss of beach. There is also erosion and coastal development as more and more people move to Florida. The skimmers have fewer nesting sites.”

In addition to the new nesting site in IRB, skimmers have three other nesting sites in Pinellas County — St. Pete Beach, Clearwater Beach and Three Rooker Island, near Honeymoon Island.

Nesting season started in May and will last until the end of August. Once the chicks can fly the birds scatter; they don’t stay together until it is time to nest the following year.

The new chicks might decide to stay with the colony where they were born or hook up with another colony; it all depends on finding a mate.

Short compares the behavior of the skimmers to that of humans.

“In the winter time we have identified skimmers from New York. They are true snowbirds,” she said laughing.

The important message from Short and Audubon Florida is the message to be careful of, and to care for, the black skimmers.

“It is our responsibility and it is up to us to share the beach,” she said.