The emails arrive with subject lines of E8, then N3 and J7. You might think we are playing bingo, and in a way, we are: black skimmer bingo! The letter/number combinations are unique identifiers on bands we attached to young skimmers, and these emails are bringing us good tidings of sightings of “our” birds as they migrate south. These birds have the distinction of being hatched and banded at the northernmost skimmer nesting colony along the Atlantic coast – at Eel Pond in Edgartown – and while this colony is small at only 21-23 pairs annually, it is consistently good at producing young. For instance, 32 chicks fledged from the Eel Pond colony in 2023.
In the fall, the colony’s black skimmers (“BLSK,” to ornithologists) depart their nesting site and begin their migration south. Their first move is typically west to Long Island, which often produces multiple re-sights of our birds. By November, our bingo game gets more exciting and less predictable as we await re-sights from further south. We are particularly interested in reports of this year’s fledglings. We received the first news of this year’s banded cohort from Audubon biologist Lindsay Addison, a collaborator on piping plover and American oystercatcher conservation (and a recent YouTube star!). Lindsay observed four of our juveniles, O(N0), O(N3), O(N4), and O(N9), on Figure Eight Island at Mason Inlet in Hanover County, North Carolina, in late November and December. O(E8) was spotted on 11/27 at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina by biologist Cami Duquet of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Then O(E7), O(L6), and O(K2) were reported at Huguenot Memorial Park (HMP) in Jacksonville, Florida. HMP is a known “hotspot” for our overwintering BLSK, and we expect more sightings of our other banded BLSK in the coming months. The majority of our winter sightings come from the northeastern corner of Florida.
With each of our re-sights, we learn more about the individual overwintering strategies of our BLSK. On December 10, we received sightings of O(E7) and O(J7). These two BLSK were banded in 2018. They both return to Martha’s Vineyard each year to nest. After a successful nesting season, they departed the MV nesting colony on the same day in early August. O(E7) returns to HMP without fail each winter, and doesn’t seem to stray too far from this site. O(E7) is one of our more well-documented BLSK because of its propensity to stay in one area throughout the winter. On the other hand, we also received a sighting of O(J7) from all the way down in Key West, where it was sighted by Ingrid Seigert, a birder traveling by boat with a special place in her heart for black skimmers. While many of our birds are content spending the winter in Jacksonville, O(J7) prefers to travel much longer distances. Over the past several winters, O(J7) has been spotted exploring Naples, Marco Island, and Key West. Maybe Cuba is next!
We also recently made an interesting discovery: one of our nesting BLSK was banded as a chick at the Nickerson Beach colony on Long Island in August 2015. Since 2019, this bird has nested at Little Beach and is our only BLSK with a single USGS metal band. There is a small nine-digit code engraved on the band. Unlike the orange field-readable bands, this metal band code is not easily read in field. However, after several seasons of partial reads, BWorks shorebird biologists were finally able to piece the code together and identify the individual bird wearing the band. It is interesting to confirm that each season this BLSK has chosen to pass up its more popular natal colony on Long Island and migrate the extra distance to nest on Martha’s Vineyard.
We are looking forward to more sightings of our banded BLSK in the new year!