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Banding Together for Bird Conservation

PanoramicFor me, any day spent on the beach rather than in my office is a good day. Add in great people and fun, active work aimed at protecting rare shorebirds, and that beach day quickly upgrades to great. Throw in the chance to hold fluffy, adorable chicks, and, well…we’re talking epic.

birds in flight

Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in Hempstead, NY

Last week, I had the opportunity to join staff members from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), the New York Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Town of Hempstead on an annual outing to Nickerson Beach in Nassau County, Long Island to band a colony of black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chicks.

As their name suggests, black skimmers literally skim the surface of the water to feed. Their lower jaw slips beneath the water, and when it touches a fish, the upper bill snaps to catch it.  It’s a cool bird to watch…but the chance to see one is sometimes difficult.

black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chick

A young black skimmer chick

In wintertime, black skimmers are primarily located on southern coasts, from the Carolinas to Central America. But in the spring, they migrate north to breed, and they like to nest on sandy beaches and marsh islands. The same kind of sandy beaches that we humans like to vacation on. So it is not surprising that the black skimmer is now endangered in New Jersey and of special concern in New York.

Holdling Bird

The team banding the chicks

Because of my involvement in dune nourishment projects, I do a lot of monitoring of shorebirds along New Jersey beaches. This summer alone, I have probably spent 10 hours or more each week taking note of bird life along these beaches, but not once this summer on the New Jersey Beaches have I seen a black skimmer.

So it was amazing, last week, to walk out onto Nickerson Beach and suddenly see a colony of 600 breeding pairs. According to my colleagues on the banding trip, this population is stable.  Once my sense of awe subsided enough for me to actually move, the fun really began.

black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chick

Apparently, last year, it took three days to chase and catch only 25 black skimmer chicks to band. But this year, Jason Smith from NYSDEC developed a new way to corral the chicks, who cannot yet fly, using a temporary fence-like structure and we were able to band 89 of them within two hours. This method not only lessened our stress, but that of the chicks and adults. Each chick was banded with a USFWS metal band on its left leg, and those with big enough legs received a bright yellow field-readable ID band on their right leg.

Banding these birds is important because it helps us find out where the skimmers are going during the rest of the year and see how many chicks return as adults to breed in their natal colony.


Trying to keep the chicks calm while banding

It is one thing to look for, read about, and then actually see a species that is endangered (in New Jersey). It is quite another to hold one in your hand, where its vulnerability is, literally, tangible. The chicks felt so fragile. When I held them in order to band them, all I could feel was the beating of their hearts. That is the pulse of a day well spent.

Healing Coastal Habitats

Amy Nelson

Amy Nelson

As spring eases into summer in the Northern Hemisphere, many of us find ourselves drawn to the coast.

The tidal pulse of marshes, reefs, rocky shores, and sandy beaches delivers its restorative tonic, and we drink it in. But despite their power, the world’s coastal ecosystems are fragile, and they’re in trouble. There is no better time than now to acknowledge all that our coasts do for us and to start returning the favor.

iMangrovesThe 1.6 million kilometers of coastline on our planet contain some of its most highly dynamic and productive ecosystems. From mudflats to mangroves, salt marshes to seagrass meadows, kelp forests to coral reefs, coastal habitats sustain countless forms of life—including ours.

One third of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, and coastal habitats not only protect these communities, but support the millions people employed directly and indirectly by fisheries and tourism.

Benidorm, Alicante, Spain

Benidorm, Alicante, Spain

But in developing our coastal areas, modifying coastal hydrology in the name of flood protection or agriculture, using destructive fishing practices, and polluting waters that drain to the coasts, we are degrading the very ecological systems that draw us to our coasts. Unlike footprints in the sand, these anthropogenic impacts will not be easily or instantly washed away.

And then there is climate change.

An increasing body of research–including an article published just two weeks ago in Frontiers in Marine Science–shows that coastal ecosystems hold enormous potential when it comes to climate mitigation, yet 24% of the world’s sea grass species are threatened or near threatened (IUCN), tidal wetlands in the U.S. are being lost at twice the rate they are being restored, 75% of the world’s coral reefs are at risk, 10% are already damaged beyond repair (RAMSAR), and more than one in six mangrove species are now in danger of extinction. How can we covet our coasts so much yet care for them so little?

Essex estuary

There is good news. What began decades ago with efforts to restore salt marsh in Virginia and North Carolina has grown into the practice of coastal habitat restoration. Hundreds of agencies, organizations, and committed people around the world are now engaged in restoring coastal dunes, kelp and mangrove forests, coral and oyster reefs, seagrass meadows and salt marshes.

Dr. Joy Zedler

Dr. Joy Zedler

Every day, we learn more about coastal habitat restoration, and many experts are working hard to ensure that knowledge is passed on to new generations of restoration practitioners. In the latest issue of Biohabitats’ e-newsletter, Leaf Litter, we were honored to chat with two of them. Dr. Joy Zedler, Professor of Botany and Aldo Leopold Chair in Restoration Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the former Director of the Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory at San Diego State University, is one of the world’s leading experts in coastal wetlands.



Roy “Robin” Lewis is president of the design-build firm Lewis Environmental Services, head of the non-profit Coastal Resources Group, and an internationally renowned coastal wetland restoration instructor. Both Joy and Robin generously share the wisdom and insight they have gained in studying and restoring coastal ecosystems for nearly half a century.

It is one thing to plan, conceptualize, and design a coastal habitat restoration project. It’s quite another to implement one. Don’t miss these “Do’s & Don’ts” from people who know what it’s like to be on the ground or under water installing coastal habitat restoration projects.

In her article “Nature is teaching. Are we listening?” senior ecologist Terry Doss suggests that while we wait for coastal retreat strategies to gain momentum, we must follow nature’s guidance as we attempt to restore coastal habitats.

Ridge to Reefs slope stabilization/restoration project in Puerto Rico

Ridge to Reefs slope stabilization/restoration project in Puerto Rico

Leaf Litter’s nonprofit spotlight shines on Ridge to Reefs, an organization that strives to protect and restore coastal ecosystems, primarily coral reefs, mangroves, and tidal wetlands by looking upland and addressing the key causes of degradation. They then building upon those efforts to enhance the policies, economies, resilience, and well-being of coastal communities.

Among the countless species that benefit from coastal habitat restoration, only one—the human—is likely to be concerned with the economic return on investment. Exactly what is socioeconomic payoff of coastal habitat restoration? Researchers who examined 50 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded coastal habitat restoration projects implemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have revealed some interesting answers to that question.

Great egret (Ardea alba) taking advantage of restored coastal habitat in DE.

Great egret (Ardea alba) taking advantage of restored coastal habitat in DE.

The topic of coastal habitat restoration is as broad and expansive as the coasts themselves. We encourage you to explore our list of resources to learn more. The list includes publications and organizations referenced in the issue, as well as many others.

The summer solstice issue of Leaf Litter also gives you a chance to catch up on the latest news about Biohabitats Projects, Places and People.

Check out the coastal restoration issue of Leaf Litter, and share your thoughts!