NOTE: Adam DiNuovo currently holds a U.S. Federal Master Banding Permit and a Florida Banding Permit. Only trained permit holders and their volunteers can band birds.
It is mid-July in Southwest Florida, and summer heat hangs heavy in the air as Audubon Florida biologist Adam DiNuovo checks his bird banding equipment. Though he’s on the beaches throughout the year monitoring sea and shorebird colonies, the summer banding season provides a special opportunity to learn more about one of Florida’s most unique native species: Black Skimmers.
Banding projects are used to help researchers understand bird movement and survival and to monitor the health of the population. DiNuovo has been banding Black Skimmer chicks in the colony at Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area since 2017, part of a statewide effort to learn more about skimmer life history. Under normal conditions, 4-5 volunteers assist with banding. However, due to COVID-19, only one helper currently assists him.
A typical banding session starts an hour before sunset with a boat trip out to the colony. After a short walk, DiNuovo sets up his “station” in the sand: a blanket to sit on and all the tools (specialized pliers, wing ruler, scale and calipers) laid out for easy access. Once set up is complete, the team waits for darkness, which brings cooler temperatures and helps reduce overall stress in the colony.
Large Black Skimmer chicks often wander outside of the posted nesting area boundary, allowing for capture without disturbing birds that are still incubating eggs or tending small chicks. DiNuovo wields a long-handled net to catch the fast moving, wily chicks. The capture team also uses headlamps with red lights as to not disturb another common beach nester, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. It is a comical sight to see red lights and nets running around the beach, and one can quickly spot the difference between rookies and seasoned veterans. Catching larger chicks that can run quickly or fly short distances is a tricky activity, DiNuovo explains, and “some nights it is like trying to catch a greased pig.”
Once 3-4 chicks are captured, DiNuovo places them in a holding box and the banding begins. To start, he gives each bird a USGS metal band on the lower left leg containing nine numbers: a four-digit prefix and a five-digit suffix. This federal band acts as the bird’s unique social security number.
Next, he places a green plastic band with a unique three-digit code on the lower right leg. This band is readable from a distance and allows biologists to identify the individual bird in the future without having to recapture it. Finally the team takes a few morphometric measurements, like weight and length of the wing and bill, and the bird is released. Though there are multiple steps to each banding session, DiNuovo and his team are practiced and quick, making sure they handle the chicks for no longer than a few minutes so the birds can be quickly reunited with their parents. So far, more than 200 Black Skimmers have been banded since the program began.
Until recently, little information was known about the age, survival, and seasonal whereabouts of the skimmers nesting at Florida Gulf Coast sites. In 2015, Audubon Florida – in partnership with Dr. Beth Forys of Eckerd College – began to band skimmer chicks in Pinellas County in an ongoing effort to unravel the mysteries of their annual movements.
DiNuovo’s banding data, combined with the Pinellas County study, has already yielded surprising results. Though many Black Skimmers return to their natal colony to nest, a significant number seek new beaches and new colonies in which to breed. Some birds fly across Florida’s peninsula between Gulf and Atlantic coasts in spring and fall, while other birds, hatched on the Gulf Coast, fly across the peninsula as juveniles and stay to become Atlantic Coast breeders on beaches or rooftops.
In 2017 DiNuovo banded Black Skimmer C53 at the Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area. Three years later the skimmer was re-sighted with its own chick – at Carlos Pointe in Lee County. Similarly, birds that were born in Collier County have now nested in Pinellas, and vice versa.
“Preliminary data suggests that we really need to focus on the region-wide importance of these breeding areas, in addition to protecting individual colonies,” DiNuovo explains.
When done correctly and by experienced banders, banding birds helps biologists and site managers assess colony health and identify critical nesting and resting sites, in turn helping inform management and protection strategies. Banding is an important tool in the understanding and conservation of many bird species.
If you see a banded Black Skimmer, please report it to Adam DiNuovo at firstname.lastname@example.org. The involvement of community scientists is crucial to this banding project.