Of all Gulf Birds, our “Fab 4” are most in need of conservation action. These declining species share the beach with people across the Gulf.
Highly social, Black Skimmers are closely related to terns, including Least Tern, and like these terns they are declining in population. Skimmers roost and breed in colonies that can include thousands of pairs. Successful colonies often occupy the same nest sites each year, usually on sandy or gravelly bars and beaches. Small colonies or those that are unsuccessful usually relocate.
The Black Skimmer is not listed as a threatened species at the federal level; however, it is a Watch List species and has an official conservation status in several states. Since skimmers nest close to the water’s edge and feed from the water surface, the species was a concern during the 2010 BP oil spill. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 263 Black Skimmers were collected that year during the oil spill response. From posting educational signs to conducting boater awareness surveys, we’re helping the species to recover.
As its name implies, the Least Tern is the smallest of the terns of the Americas. The birds breed in many areas of the United States and winter mainly along the coast of northern South America. Like others of our Fab 4, this tern prefers sandy beaches for nesting—the same kinds of places that people love to visit. And, because it nests on the ground, it’s vulnerable to attacks by cats, dogs, and other predators.
The species is classified as threatened or as a species of concern for most states. Our Gulf Coastal Birds Program cooperates with many partners to bring back populations of Least Tern; due in part to our efforts, in Grand Isle, Louisiana, we observed nearly twice the number of breeding pairs and fledglings in 2013 as we did in 2012.
The diminutive Snowy Plover can be found along sandy coastlines in North and South America and the Caribbean. It is lighter in color than the closely-related Piping Plover and also differs from that species by a partial black collar and black legs and feet. Like other beach-nesting birds, Snowy Plovers are ground-nesters, creating small hollows called scrapes for their eggs. This species frequently raises two broods a year, and sometimes three in places where predation is low.
The species is listed as endangered or threatened in several states; it also appears on the Watch List. Our Gulf Coastal Birds Program is identifying and implementing protective measures for Snowy Plovers and other vulnerable beach-nesting birds. With our partners, we’re monitoring populations of Snowy Plovers on the central and upper Texas coast.
Once known as the Thick-billed Plover, the sturdy Wilson’s Plover uses its strong bill to take larger prey than other plovers. The birds forage along the shore and higher on the sands for crustaceans, especially fiddler crabs, worms, and other invertebrates.
With a decreasing population of only about 15,000 globally, the Wilson’s Plover is a species of great concern for us. It’s on the Watch List and has been recommended for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act due to its low and declining U.S. population, limited and contracting range, rapid loss of habitat, and human disturbance at all stages of its life cycle. We are working with Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program in Texas, which has placed geolocators on Wilson’s Plovers that stage on the central Texas coast before migrating further south, which will help us understand the species’ conservation needs.
The Piping Plover is another of the many bird species that benefit from our Gulf Coastal Birds Program. This small, sand-colored bird, named for its melodic whistle, often shares beaches and barrier islands with our Fab 4. And like those other species, its population is in decline.
We will soon launch our Piping Plover protection and monitoring initiative during migration and winter in Texas. We’ll also be working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to develop draft management plans for this species at important sites for these species in coastal Texas.