DELMARVA ALMANAC

Protecting Coastal Nesters

by Dave Wilson

Naturalist Dave Wilson talks about the colonies of birds nesting along our coastal bays with his guest Dr. Dave Curson on the telephone.

Dave Wilson:
We have with us today Dr. Dave Curson. Dr. Curson has been the director of bird conservation for Audubon Maryland DC for the past 12 years overseeing the Important Bird Areas Program, advocating for better land use planning, and implementing conservation projects for birds and their habitats in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Recently Dr. Curson's work with Audubon has focused on tidal marsh conservation and he's implementing a number of projects to increase marsh resilience to sea level rise. Dave came to the US in 1993 and received his PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2003. He is originally from London, England as we will soon hear. Today we'll talk about some colonial nesting birds in the coastal bays and the tough odds they face in the few places that they still breed in Maryland. He joins us by phone from his office near Patterson Park in Baltimore. Dave, good morning good.

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Good morning Dave. Pleased to be with you."

Dave Wilson:
Dave, can you tell me a little bit about Audubon Maryland-DC's Important Bird Areas Program?
Dr. Dave Curson:
"The Important Bird Areas are basically the most important areas for birds in Maryland and Audubon has been identifying these sites along with our partners for the past few years. Our strategy is to identify these sites using science-based criteria and then to focus our conservation efforts on those sites. Obviously our resources for conservation are limited so we use this as a filter that tells us where to focus our effort.
"

Dave I know you're doing a lot of work with the important bird areas here on the Eastern Shore. Can you talk about some of the work you're doing down here?

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Sure. The Maryland Coastal Bays is one of those important bird areas that we identified and it's a really terrific site and a big area. It covers private land as well as public land; it covers a variety of habitats. And the Coastal Bays IBA has beaches, saltmarsh, coastal lagoons, and there's a range of species that use these habitats. Many species cover the three categories that are important in the Important Bird Areas. We have birds that are at risk. We have birds that are habitat specialists of one particular type of habitat like marsh or beach, and we have birds that congregate in really large numbers. And the work that we're doing in the coastal bays at the moment is really focused on helping beach and island nesting birds, really colonial seabirds…helping them nest undisturbed. They've had quite a few problems lately. Some species including black skimmers and royal terns and common terns have declined enormously in the last 20 years. And this is due to the islands on which they nest becoming eroded and in some cases disappearing entirely. And so we're trying to make sure that these birds nest that nest on the last few remaining Islands are undisturbed by humans and dogs and some of the other things that can cause them problems."

Dave Wilson:
Dave, what are some of the issues associated with the islands? I know erosion is a problem and sea level rise. Any other issues they're having with island nesting in the coastal bays?

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Human disturbance is a big problem. On these islands, these birds need undisturbed places to nest and they're very vulnerable to predators so when they nest in places which are attached to the mainland they're vulnerable to ground predators like foxes and raccoons. On Islands they're vulnerable to avian predators like gulls and crows. Most of the time they can defend themselves against those predators because they nest in big colonies. So when they all gang up on a crow or gull that's coming to attack their nest they can usually drive it off. But when they're disturbed by people or dogs they can be kept away from their nests for quite a long period of time and in that time gulls and crows can come in and eat the eggs or chicks. If they're off the nest for a very long time the sun can literally bake an egg and kill it that way."

Dave Wilson:
I assume you have seen some of this happen in the coastal bays?

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Yes quite a bit. The islands in the coastal bays are mostly owned by the state of Maryland and they are closed to public access during the spring and summer, but not everyone realizes this. There are signs posted but we do see people landing boats on the island and walking their dogs. Usually people are just curious and don't really know the significance of the islands so it's very important that we can get the message out and let people know why they shouldn't visit these islands in the spring and the summer."

Dave Wilson:
Dave, tell me more about black skimmers.

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Black skimmers are really interesting birds. They are very distinctive in the way they forage. You have probably seen these on television documentaries. Basically they fly along close to the water and they dip their lower mandible into the water to create a long ripple to disturb the surface of the water. Then they turn around and fly the same line back and fish are attracted to the little ripple that the skimmers create. The lower mandible is longer than the upper mandible so when it comes back along that line it dips its lower mandible in the water and when it feels a fish it snaps it up and eats it. It's a unique method of fishing you don't see any other sea birds do."

Dave Wilson:
How about royal terns?

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Royal Terns are one of the endangered species in Maryland that have declined a lot in the past 20 years. They're only about 200 pairs in Maryland and they're quite a distinctive bird. They look a little bit like a seagull and have a black shaggy crest and a bright orange beak. It looks like it's got a carrot stuck to its head and it has a glaucous cry. It's a really iconic bird of Ocean City. When you go on vacation to Ocean City you drive across the Route 50 Bridge approaching the town and they're often seen flying overhead calling loudly. To me, I always think of these birds as meaning I've arrived at my vacation when I see them. They're really special to Ocean City."

Dave Wilson:
What's a good way for folks to get involved if they want to help or help educate the public? Are there any avenues for them to do that?

Dr. Dave Curson:
"Firstly I would say if you're a boater to heed the signs and look at the birds from a distance, not land your boat on the islands. For others, I would say there are a couple of ways to get involved. One is to watch the birds from a distance if you can and to report when you see some of these endangered birds like skimmers and royal terns on islands and let Audubon know. We would love to hear from you to know where they are. And secondly if you do see anyone on the island you can call the Natural Resources Police at 410-548-7070 to alert them to the fact that people are on the island where they shouldn't be or 800-628-9944 or VHF Channel 16."

For more information on colonial nesting birds in the coastal bays you can check out md.audubon.org and Maryland Natural Resources.