The Birds of Skimmer Island

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp tells us about protecting the nesting habitat found on Skimmer Island near Ocean City, Maryland.

Driving into Ocean City over the Route 50 bridge in the peak of the summer tourist season is quite an experience. As with any coastal resort, you're bound to hit a little traffic. If you get stuck creeping along bumper-to-bumper on the way to the beach and the boardwalk, take note of the sights and sounds that surround you as you cross Sinepuxent Bay to Maryland's favorite beach town.

First, you'll notice big things in the sky. Giant colorful parasails with tourists dangling from thin straps below glide high above the water. Even higher, airplanes pulling long banners advertising beach businesses motor above the ocean in the distance beyond the boardwalk. As you begin to cross the bridge, you'll spot the anglers on either side, waiting patiently for that 16-inch keeper flounder to bite far below at the bottom of the bay. On the bay, jetskis zoom around the head boats and private vessels trying their luck with the fish.

Roll your window down, and you'll hear the engines of your fellow travelers and the boats below, but you'll also hear something else. Screeching terns hover, swoop and dive right beside the bridge. If you're in the right lane closest to the water, you can see them just a few feet away flying at eye level. Gulls, pelicans and osprey soar above, drifting lazily on the ocean breeze. Herons and egrets slowly flap their wings as they fly overhead, on their way to feed in the shallow waters along the marshy edges of the bay. The vacationers and birds have much in common. Most of them have migrated great distances to be here in the coastal waters behind Ocean City, and for some of the same reasons. Warm weather, fresh fish and sandy beaches appeal to both tern and tourist. Tourists, however, own the bulk of the real estate around here, save for a few tiny islands located just north of the Route 50 bridge.

One of the most important islands in Maryland for nesting colonial waterbirds is less than 1,000 feet north of the bridge, right in the middle of Ocean City's busiest summer boating area. The island is actually a complex of sandbars, mudflats and slim ridges of grasses and shrubs. Known to locals as "Bird Island" or the "4th Street Flats," it is officially known as Skimmer Island.

The island's namesake is the Black Skimmer, an unusual bird that feeds on small fish and minnows on the open water. Skimmers are large waterbirds with a black back and white belly; long, pointed wings, and one of the most unusual bills in the bird world.

The Black Skimmer's large red and black bill is super thin, and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. When skimming for small fish behind Ocean City, the bird glides in a straight line with its lower mandible slicing the water. When it touches a fish, the upper bill snaps down in the blink of an eye, thus securing dinner. Black Skimmers are active at dusk, and you may find them skimming at night between the docks on downtown Ocean City's bayside.

Skimmer Island is the primary nesting site in Maryland for Black Skimmers. It is also a critical nesting site for the Royal Tern and its smaller cousin, the Common Tern. You can see these birds making spectacular dives to catch fish from the Route 50 bridge. Despite it's small size, Skimmer Island also provides ideal nesting habitat for American Oystercatchers, Glossy Ibis, and several species of egrets and herons.

The island did not exist prior to the formation of the Ocean City Inlet in 1933. Following the massive storm that opened the inlet, a slow natural process started that formed sandy shoals. These sandbars eventually poked above the high tide line and formed the island, which is now owned and managed by the State of Maryland. By the mid-1980s, there was enough sand on the island that the Black Skimmers and Royal and Common Terns found it suitable for nesting. By the mid-90s, Skimmer Island became THE primary real estate in Maryland for these colonial nesting waterbirds.

Colonial waterbirds gather together in the safety of tightly-packed colonies during the nesting season. When a predator is prowling for a nesting parent or helpless chick, and it is faced with a large number of individuals to choose from, there is safety in numbers.

To raise young successfully, skimmer and tern colonies are established on remote islands with open sandy beaches free from land-based predators, such as foxes, raccoons and feral cats. The surrounding waters, while jammed with tourists in the summer, provide excellent fishing for feeding baby birds and hungry parents. Oddly, the jetskis and motor boats that zoom around Skimmer Island are part of its' success as a nesting site for the birds, as the constant traffic helps keep some predators away.

In recent years, Skimmer Island has suffered serious erosion caused by strong tidal currents and storms. In the late 1990s, the island was over seven acres in size, but by 2009, it was just over two acres. That same year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources lead the effort to restore Skimmer Island by using clean sand dredged from a nearby marina to build back the lost acreage. As erosion continues and sea levels rise, the island will continue to be nourished with sand to maintain the critical nesting habitat for skimmers, terns, and other birds.

Skimmer Island is only accessible by boat, but birders can view it easily with binoculars and scopes from the Route 50 bridge, from the bayside streets in Ocean City, or by kayak and boat. Skimmer Island and the surrounding mud flats are closed to public access from April 1st to September 15th to protect the nesting colonies of skimmers and terns.

Although signs are posted, some boaters willfully ignore them, and anchor on the island to set up beach chairs and umbrellas, clam in the mudflats or run their dogs off the leash. This is incredibly dangerous for birds that nest on the sand, as camouflaged eggs can be stepped on and crushed, or babies abandoned by frightened parents can suffer quickly in the hot sun. To avoid unnecessary disturbance of these birds, landing on the island anytime is discouraged. If you see someone walking on Skimmer Island during the spring and summer closure period, please call the Natural Resources Police at 410-260-8888. That's 410-260-8888.

So please give these rare birds a chance to nest and raise young during the summer, and respect the posted closure signs on Skimmer Island when jetskiing and boating on the coastal bays. Remember that we humans have the entire beach to roam from the Ocean City inlet to Indian River, and the skimmers and terns only have these few acres of sandy island to raise their families.

Find out more about Skimmer Island.