Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mixed success for beach nesting birds

I really can't imagine that there are many birds that have a tougher existence than the beach nesting birds of New Jersey. New Jersey is synonymous with the beach - the Jersey Shore. Mile after mile of golden sands, just crying out to be enjoyed as the perfect summertime playground for hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals alike. Rest and relaxation are, of course, important to our well-being, but there are some species that have no choice; New Jersey's sunny, sandy beaches are not their playground, they are their homes, where life and death struggles are played out on a daily basis.

It's sad to report that not a single Piping Plover chick survived on Cape May's beaches this year. A sad landmark in the history of the species in our region. Doing some quick measuring on Google Earth, I discovered that we have 44 miles of sandy beaches suitable for beach-nesting birds in Cape May County, stretching from Ocean City in the north-west, south around Cape May Point and up the bayshore to Del Haven - after which, the beaches get rather narrow and of unsuitable structure for beach-nesting birds. Of these 44 miles, just over 2 miles are fully protected for beach-nesting birds - that's just 5% of the available beach area. What do I mean by properly protected? Well, the birds need unhindered access from nest locations to feeding locations along the intertidal zone, so there needs to be no disturbance along the seaward side of the beach. So, 95% of beaches available for play and fun; 5% available for the continued existence of a species. I'll leave that one out there....

Let's finish on an upbeat note. Black Skimmers have had a checkered history in our area, but news has been better than average this year. A small colony of birds popped up out of nowhere and promptly set about breeding at the north end of Cape May this year. I say popped out of nowhere; Black Skimmers have a habit of moving around periodically and disturbance at one location can move them on and cause them to appear somewhere else mid-season - and Black Skimmers do seem quite good at starting late broods if they get a chance. The good news is that this colony raised over 30 youngsters to fledging - the first Black Skimmers known to have fledged in the County for many years. So here's some photos to celebrate a bunch of young skimmers with South Jersey accents!!

Nest-scraping with feet kicking backward and head held high is the first sign that things are happening down on the beach.

Nest scrapes can be surprisingly deep and chicks will use them to hide in for some time after hatching - can you spot chick number 3 here?
I know, I know, you haven't eaten for, like, ever....

The number of chicks that fledge is very much dependent on food availability and adults will always favor the largest sibling that begs for food. The end result is often not good for the little one...
Cape May's chicks start to stretch their wings and will soon be hanging out with all the other Black Skimmers near the 2nd Avenue jetty

I know it's a matter of opinion, but Black Skimmer chicks are, well, not always the prettiest of birds!
Let's wish these guys well and hope to see them back here again next year [all photos by Mike Crewe].

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