Summer is certainly still in full swing here on Nantucket, with plenty of warm, sunny beach days ahead before the arrival of autumn. But for those of us who keep tabs on beach nesting bird species, it’s time to breathe a little sigh of relief. Most of the little fluff-ball chicks that have been under our care since May are stretching their wings, learning how to fly out of harm’s way, and fueling up for the long journey ahead to their wintering grounds over the coming months.
In addition to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, many other Nantucket and region-wide groups are involved with the collective effort to protect our rare and endangered nesting shorebirds, including the piping plover, American oystercatcher, and several species of terns (least, common, and roseate). Every two weeks during the active nesting season, we meet with our colleagues at The Trustees of Reservations, MassAudubon, Tuckernuck Land Trust, Nantucket Land Bank and Town of Nantucket Department of Natural Resources to share information on nest locations and management issues.
In early August, our small island consortium participates in the annual Northeast Coastal Waterbirds Cooperators Meeting, hosted by the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which was just held (virtually this year) on August 2, 2022. Over 150 colleagues attended and presented nesting season data from their respective regions and shared recent research results and management challenges. Here’s a quick summary of what happened on Nantucket as well as regionally this year!
For piping plovers, Nantucket (including Tuckernuck and Muskeget Islands) hosted a total of 75 nesting pairs this year, the same as in 2021. Populations of this federally listed species have been steadily increasing on the island since protection and monitoring efforts began in 1987, when only 7 nesting pairs were present. Recent trends have seen decreased use of south shore beaches by plovers, likely due to coastal erosion-related habitat loss and higher tides, with a corresponding shift to north shore, particularly Coatue, the shoreline between Jetties Beach and 40th Pole, and Eel Point. Although there are still a few unfledged chicks on our beaches, it looks like productivity (i.e., the number of chicks fledged per nesting pair) is going to be on the lower side this year, primarily due to nest overwash as well as predation from crows and gulls.
Numbers of nesting terns were relatively low on the island this year, with only a few small colonies of least terns at Smith Point, Low Beach, the Galls (just south of Great Point) and along the north beach of Coatue. Of note was a small but significant colony of common terns (despite their name, uncommon nesters on Nantucket) at Eel Point. A total of 33 nests were tallied at this site, which is the largest nesting colony of this species on the island in recent memory. Muskeget hosted larger numbers of common, least and federally listed roseate terns that attempted to nest with limited success due to nearby nesting gulls. At this time of year, many of the island’s beaches serve as important “staging areas” for terns and other species of shorebirds that nested elsewhere in the region – sites where they gather in large numbers to feed and rest up prior to migration in early fall.
The Nantucket region regularly hosts the highest concentration of nesting American oystercatchers in Massachusetts, and this year was no exception. A total of 51 pairs were tallied between the three islands, which represents almost one quarter of the 212 pairs monitored across the Commonwealth. As of now, 35 fledglings (chicks that can fly) and 10 unfledged chicks are feeding, resting and generally learning how to be oystercatchers from their parents on our beaches. Since 2005, we have participated in the American Oystercatcher Working Group (www.amoywg.org) by banding and re-sighting American oystercatchers on our properties. Each season when the chicks are almost ready to fly, we place field-readable color bands on their legs as part of this group’s efforts to better understand the movement patterns of these rare and declining shorebirds. Every band has a unique code and will stay with the bird for its entire life. This year, we banded 27 oystercatcher chicks at various sites across the island. In recent years, several of oystercatcher chicks that we banded on Nantucket have been re-sighted as far away as Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Yucatan peninsula!
A highlight of the season was a prolonged visit by several black skimmers, a species of shorebird that has not nested on Nantucket since the beginning of detailed record keeping. This large and charismatic species, with striking black and white plumage, has a bright orange bill with a longer lower mandible that allows it to “skim” across the surface of the water and catch small fish. Black skimmers are just beginning to expand their range northward, and have recently established a successful nesting colony on Martha’s Vineyard. Our skimmer visitors were observed in many locations across the island during a 2-3 week period starting on July 4th weekend. We are hopeful that they were scoping out a future nest site location here on Nantucket!