Nesting Black Skimmers on Deveaux Bank by Carl W.Cole

Last Saturday, I spent a wonderful afternoon on Deveaux Bank with SC DNR Wildlife Biologist Janet Thibault.  The purpose of the visit was to prepare me as a volunteer to help protect nesting Black Skimmers and other species.   The Skimmers are just now sitting on their eggs and will be especially vulnerable for the next few months, so Katie Zimmerman with the Coastal Conservation League is trying to organize volunteers to help educate boaters that visit the island.

Black Skimmers have a lot working against them as they try to reproduce,  including, at least,  loss of habitat, inundation, predation, and limited food sources.   Deveaux is one of three Seabird Sanctuaries managed by DNR and, as such, is one of the few places in the state that Skimmers nest.   As precious as Deveaux is to nesting Skimmers, it’s also precarious.   They nest on dunes just above the high tide line and are at risk of inundation during storms or high tides such as we’ve seen recently.   One of the characteristics that makes Deveaux special as a seabird sanctuary is that it is free of mammalian predators but Skimmers are also subject to aerial predation.  Laughing Gulls and most other seabirds on Deveaux have already hatched chicks, so the Gulls are at a peak demand for food for their own chicks and will take Skimmer eggs and chicks when they can.   Skimmers on Deveaux have not successfully fledged any chicks for the last three years!

Human disturbance is clearly not the only threat to a Skimmer nesting colony but it can still be disastrous.  Skimmer nests need continuous protection so the male and female take turns, with the one of the pair feeding or just loafing in the intertidal zone when not on the nest.  Skimmers are skittish and easily disturbed.  Humans on the bird sanctuary are, for the most part, restricted to the intertidal zone but a human walking legally below the high tide line can still flush a Skimmer nesting colony.  By the time the birds settle on the nest again, the eggs or chicks may have overheated or fallen victim to the gulls.  Dogs are not permitted on the island at all but it was clear last weekend that even people who know better will bring their dogs.  A tactful reminder might at least get them to put the dog back in their boat.

I told Janet and Katie both that I know that the purpose of my visit wasn’t to entertain me but I was entertained nonetheless.  What a wonderful place and what a privilege to see the nesting colonies of Black Skimmers, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, and others.  As South Carolinians, we’re blessed with many special natural places that are worthy of our continued protection.  The three DNR Bird Sanctuaries are clearly among them.   We can help educate boaters at Deveaux this summer and, if the local biologists again approach the DNR board to close Deveaux to boaters, we can go to bat for them  – and for the birds.


Additional reading:

Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary

Black Skimmer | National Audubon Society Birds

Seabirds in South Carolina

Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary | Friends of Charleston Harbor Wildlife

South Carolina Wildlife Magazine