Black Skimmer Conservation along the Texas Gulf Coast
Request for Proposals November 2020
Trey Barron, Wildlife Diversity Biologist
One of the most iconic coastal waterbirds in Texas, the Black Skimmer, has experienced a dramatic population decline in our state and elsewhere. This strictly coastal species, which inhabits our bays and beaches, is so recognizable and popular along the coast that its distinctive silhouette was selected to grace the brown, metal highway signs marking the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail since they were first unveiled in 1996. This species has also been listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) since the first edition of the Texas Conservation Action Plan in 2005. Texas colonial waterbirds along our coast, including the skimmer, have been surveyed annually for decades, and this species has shown a decline of 70% from 1973 to present times. Skimmers nest colonially atop bare sand or gravel often on coastal beaches and spits that are only inches above sea level. The Black Skimmer is a long-lived species (USGS BBL) and numbers of adults appear to be relatively stable, yet most of their eggs and nestlings do not appear to survive at most breeding sites. Anecdotal information has noted that nesting sites are being heavily disrupted by a variety of mammals, birds and certain weather events, but none of these threats have been properly investigated in Texas. Texas desperately needs a publication reviewing the history and status of the skimmer like those done in California (Collins and Garrett 1996) and South Carolina (Snipes and Sanders 2012).
In order to reverse this downward trend in skimmer numbers, we need to better understand the reasons for their decline. Coastal managers would benefit from understanding the vulnerabilities of these ground-nesting birds at various nesting sites along the coast. The 70% decline that’s been documented continues and, at the present rate, could cause local extirpations within a couple of decades. This project will address goals and objectives identified in the 2015 Land and Water Plan:
- Practice, Encourage and Enable Science-based Stewardship of Natural and Cultural Resources
- TPWD will be an exemplary steward of the public’s lands and waters by using the best available science for ecosystem-based management.
- TPWD will protect and assist in the recovery of threatened, endangered and high-priority species
This study will be conducted on the bays and beaches along as much of the Texas coast as possible in order to get a broad overview of what is happening. Conducting this at a local scale or a limited number of nesting colonies would not be as useful and only indicative of localized factors. Specific objectives include:
- Determine threats and reasons for nest failure during the nesting season at various colony sites along the Texas coast
- Utilize TPWD Coastal Fisheries bag seine data to determine prey availability during the nesting season for young and potential limitations for survival and nest success over time. We will assist awarded PI to obtain these data from Coastal Fisheries Division for analysis.
- Conduct a human dimensions (HD) survey of coastal user groups (e.g., anglers, boaters, beachgoers, wind surfers) to determine their knowledge and attitude toward colonial waterbirds, like the skimmer, during the nesting season
Given that the above objectives require both biological and HD expertise, we believe that this study will require co-PI’s: one with biological expertise and another with HD expertise. However it would be acceptable to substitute an expert HD contractor as an alternative to a co-PI. Additionally, PI’s are encouraged to work with the Coastal Conservation Association and/or similar conservation/coastal user groups along the coast for the HD study.
Expected Management Implications
Outcomes would be expected to:
- Assist coastal land managers in protecting skimmers during vulnerable periods of their annual life cycle
- Determine what could be done if weather events (especially tidal flooding) are an important threat
- Provide managers with insights on prey availability during the nesting season while young are being provisioned.
After knowledge and attitudes of coastal user groups has been summarized, coastal biologists and managers could use tailor-made outreach to address the sensitive nature of colonial nesting waterbirds.
- Collins, Charles T. and Kimball L. Garrett. 1996. The Black Skimmer in California: An Overview. Western Birds 27:127-135.
- Snipes, Katie C. and Felicia J. Sanders. 2012. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) Breeding Trends in South Carolina. Southeastern Naturalist 11(3):437-446.
- United States Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab. July 2020. Longevity Records of North American Birds. www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/longevity/Longevity_main.cfm