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Decline of Black Skimmer is an Example of Biodiversity Crisis

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This is the call of a black skimmer.

Also called the stormgull or scissor bill, black skimmers are curious-looking birds that fish along the Atlantic Coast. They have black and white feathers, bright orange and black beaks and what looks like a ridiculous underbite. The lower portion of their beak juts far beyond their upper beak.

David Curson is Director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society’s Maryland/DC chapter. He described how black skimmers use this seeming deformity in an ingenious an efficient way to trick and capture prey like no other creature on earth.

“They have a very interesting shaped beak where their lower mandible is much longer than the upper one,” Curson explained. “And they use this lower one to make a little disturbance in the water, as they fly along a straight line.  Now this attracts little fish, which are their main prey. And so then the black skimmer turns around and flies along the exact same path with its beak in the water again. And when it feels a fish, it snaps it up.”

Black skimmers return to the Maryland’s coast every spring to lay their eggs and raise their young on small, sandy islands that lie in the coastal bays between Assateague Island and Ocean City and the mainland.

A recent study by the Audubon Society, however, found that these sandy islands – which the birds need to protect their eggs from predators – are rapidly disappearing in part because of sea level rise driven by climate change.

Another factor, Curson said, are human efforts to manipulate and protect the terrain of Assateague Island and Ocean City with man-made inlets and seawalls.  This engineering is having the unintended effect of preventing the natural formation of new sandy islands.

Jet skis, motor boats, and vacationers who let their dogs rampage through nesting areas are also taking  such a toll that black skimmers may soon be extinct in Maryland, Curson said.

“The numbers have declined about 90 percent in the last 20 or 25 years,” Curson said. “And what’s really alarming is that the numbers are now so low – just about six pairs or so in the state. And in 2017 – which is the last year we have data for -- no young black skimmers were raised.  So even when they nested, those nesting attempts all failed.”

Now, you may think: A sad story, but it’s only one bird. Unfortunately, skimmers are tiny part of a much bigger picture. 

A recent United Nations report found that about one million plant and animal species around the world are on the brink of extinction due to human activity, driven not only by climate change, but also by over development, industrial farming practices and the spraying of pesticides.

“Human population continues to grow,” Curson said. “And just the land clearances which are required to provide for that insatiable appetite of homo sapiens for food as well as land are just destroying habitats at an unprecedented rate.” 

There are solutions to the biodiversity crisis for example, for the black skimmers, the Army Corps of Engineers could build more sandy islands using dredge materials. More broadly, a shift toward more clean energy, land preservation, organic farming and rational human population and birth control policies would all help.

But to solve any problem, first we must admit there is a problem.  And to do that, we must acknowledge that the world is not ours alone, and that all life is sacred.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.