Rare terns take a turn for the better and nest on Skimmer Island

June 28, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- Something important is happening on a little island hard by the Route 50 bridge, sheltered from the frenzied frolic of vacationers by a narrow band of water and environmental vigilance.

A pair of sandwich terns is nesting on Skimmer Island. It's only the second time the rare water bird has nested in Maryland in nearly 20 years.

"It's a nice little success story," says Dave Brinker, colonial water bird project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. ("Colonial" refers to the birds' social habits, not their Revolutionary ancestors.)

"This has worked. If we had not closed the island, it wouldn't have near the usage by birds that it does today."

Mr. Brinker has been monitoring water birds in Maryland since 1985. He has observed a steady increase in the bird population on Skimmer Island since it was closed to people and pets in the summer of 1992.

"There's more here than there's ever been," Mr. Brinker says with pride, scanning the island from his boat on a recent afternoon. "There's probably 1,500 to 2,000 pairs, primarily three or four different species."

Nearly all of those species are listed as threatened or endangered, he says: Royal terns are on the endangered list. Black skimmers are threatened. Roseate terns are endangered. And the sandwich tern he's brought three visitors to see is not legally protected but is very rare.

Across Sinepuxent Bay, Ocean City is a garish blur. The sounds and screams from Trimper's Amusement Park and Boardwalk traffic are muted. Instead, what you hear on this tiny island, designated a wildlife management area, is the cry of birds as they wheel and swoop overhead and the gentle slap of waves hitting the sand.

"You get up there, and there's an egg nested on every foot of that island," says Mr. Brinker, as he and his visitors climb out of the boat and wade ashore. And there is, although seeing them is initially difficult. They're not in nests; the birds just lay them right on the sand. But nature has protected them another way: All of the eggs -- royal, common and sandwich tern eggs -- are sand-colored with black smudges, and they blend into the sand so perfectly that they're almost invisible at first glance.

"The prime rule when you go into colonies [of birds] is, 'Watch your feet!' " Mr. Brinker warns.

As he and his visitors step cautiously across the sand, the birds are flushed from their nests by the intrusion. They scream overhead, showing their displeasure at the disturbance. Their shadows cross the sand, hundreds of angry dark splices.

What has brought the sandwich tern back is the growth of the royal tern population, Mr. Brinker says. Sandwich terns are considered an "obligate" population, ornithologist lingo that means they rely on the larger, louder royal tern for protection from predators.

"You don't find them nesting by themselves," Mr. Brinker says.

Threat from predators

Mammalian predators -- more ornithologist lingo that means foxes, raccoons and dogs -- are a threat to terns: They eat the eggs left on the ground, Mr. Brinker says.

But the largest threat to the birds? "Us. Too many people flushing them . . . If that happens repeatedly, day after day, a lot of chicks are going to die from exposure."

Terns and other water birds that nest in warm sand don't have to incubate in the ordinary way, sitting on the nests to keep their chicks warm. Instead, they have to keep them cool, and they do this by getting wet, then sitting on the eggs and shaking themselves to put water on the eggs. Too many disturbances mean not enough parental air-conditioning, and the chicks die.

The birds began laying their eggs in mid-May, Mr. Brinker says, and the nesting sandwich terns were spotted a couple of weeks ago by an avid amateur bird watcher on the Route 50 bridge.

One of the first people to see them was Mark Hoffman, a bird watcher who is also DNR's associate director of the wildlife division.

Tourist attraction

"Worcester County is a fabulous place to go -- it's great for unusual species," says Mr. Hoffman, who has been a birder since age 12. "It's a very popular area for birders from the metropolitan counties to visit. There's always something good to look for, and Skimmer Island is well known as a good place to see terns.

"That's one of the birds that people come to Ocean City to see," Mr. Hoffman says, adding that not all weekend ornithologists are as intense as he is. "I spend all my free time and a lot of money chasing things across the state!"

But he's not alone in his willingness to travel to see birds. Although they're quiet tourists, bird watchers flock to Ocean City and the surrounding areas, Mr. Brinker says, drawn by the chance to see so many kinds of birds in one place.

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