The Tampa Christmas Bird Count was well-underway when Jeff Liechty of Audubon Florida's coastal team spotted a banded Black Skimmer amidst a resting, mixed flock of skimmers, gulls, and pelicans. Zeroing in on its tiny, numeric bracelet, Jeff snapped photos so he could do some research and submit his critical resight data once he made it safely back to dry land. The identity of this particular Black Skimmer blew him away.
3E2, as the Black Skimmer is now known, was banded in July of 2021 as a pre-fledged chick on a barge near the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in Hampton, Virginia. Jeff's observation is the first resight of the bird! This skimmer is especially exciting because it marks the success of a conservation project all the way up in the Mid-Atlantic.
As Molly Kirk explains in an article for Virginia's Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR): "In the spring, thousands of seabirds migrate to Virginia nesting grounds. The seabirds nest in multiple locations throughout the state’s coastal plain, but South Island, one of two artificial islands that anchor the underwater tunnels of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) complex at the mouth of the James River, has been home to one of Virginia’s most well established seabird colonies for decades. Unfortunately, when the birds arrived at the island in 2020 they discovered it was completely paved over and therefore unsuitable for nesting."
In Virginia - as in Florida - good habitat is hard to come by, and the loss of South Island dealt a blow to already vulnerable nesting seabirds.
Kirk continues: "In mid-February, Governor Ralph Northam tasked DWR with finding an alternative nesting location for the seabird colony in time for the 2020 nesting season. DWR biologists began working on a solution to the problem immediately, given that they had only three months to create a new home for the birds."
Fort Wool on Rip Raps Island is right next to South Island but unsuitable for nesting. "In a massive undertaking, DWR staff and contractors worked to not only transform Fort Wool into a suitable nesting site but to also lease and moor flat-top barges in the embayment between Rip Raps and South islands to create an additional acre of habitat," Kirk writes. "The effort not only had an extremely tight timeline but also had to be completed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic."
In the end, their work improving the nesting habitat and attracting the birds with decoys proved successful - 11,000 birds nested on Fort Wool, with another 1,000 utilizing the floating barges. In total, 6,000 tern, skimmer, and gull chicks hatched - and Black Skimmer 3E2 ended up in Florida! Audubon's Seabird Institute contributed decoys to help attract skimmers and terns to the new nesting location.
(See Audubon's statement on the construction here).
"Finding 3E2 brought joy to our Christmas Bird Count, and later discovering that this bird's mere existence was the result of a substantial conservation project provided me with hope," Jeff says. "3E2 is a tangible example of how we, as humans, have the ability to reduce our negative impacts on wildlife and can effect change that results in positive outcomes. Conservation takes money and collective will, but we have a tremendous ability to determine the fate of our imperiled species like Black Skimmers."