Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring members early June 22 celebrated the arrival of hatchlings — fluffy little black skimmer chicks seen nestled under the breasts of parents.
Early June 23, AMITW executive director Suzi Fox stood outside the skimmer nesting area on the beach in Anna Maria talking on a mobile phone with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
At some point overnight, the stakes and rope cordoning off the protected nesting ground for the skimmers were knocked down. Tracks — prints of the bare feet of a human and the paws of a dog — could be seen in the sand, going about 25 feet into the nesting area.
Not far from the footprints was a discarded ice pack. And several yards from the ice pack were the broken remains of a hatched skimmer egg.
Along the back of the nesting grounds, inside the protected area, were wheel tracks, probably made by a beach cart.
Fox first filed a report with the MCSO. Then she rang the hotline for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The vandalism to the zone was the third incident in a week, Fox said. Stakes and rope were knocked down overnight June 23, overnight June 20 and overnight June 19.
Skimmers nest on open sand above the high-tide line; their nests no more than scrapes on the beach.
To protect their nests and the chicks, skimmers rely on two techniques — they mob a potential threat or they may use camouflage.
Florida had listed the black skimmer as a species of concern, but a recent review of the population conducted by the FWC recommended the state elevate the status to threatened, covered by the state endangered species act. The skimmer is not on the federal endangered species list, but the species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Some 70 years ago, a single breeding colony in the state consisted of 2,000 birds. These days, a large colony, such as the one in Anna Maria, consists of about 600 birds.
Statewide, the sizes of breeding colonies are decreasing, as is the success rate, due to development, beach recreation, pollution, climate change, invasive species and predatory animals. “Recreational activity, shoreline hardening, mechanical raking, oiling of adults or breeding areas following spills, beach driving and increased presence of domestic animals are all examples of human-induced negative impacts to coastal habitats critical to roosting and breeding skimmers,” the FWC biological assessment stated.
During the breeding season, flushing birds off eggs or away from chicks can result in thermal stress and the destruction of both.
Such flushing is the primary concern for AMITW in Anna Maria, where the nesting area was staked off about a month ago. The “keep out” signs generally are respected by beachgoers and nearby residents, but AMITW emphasized that it only takes one vandal to disrupt the breeding ground for 600 birds.
As of Islander press time, the vandalism remained under investigation.
Intentional harassment under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act is punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and a six-month jail sentence.
Violations under the state endangered species act can be prosecuted as felonies.