Like Buzz Lightyear from the movie Toy Story, black skimmer chicks fly down much more easily than they fly up. This is not an issue when they peck through their eggs at sea level, but when they hatch two stories up, it’s a problem. Fortunately, chick savers Margie Mitchell and David Saylor were watching out for wandering juveniles that hatched on the roof of Motel 6 in Cocoa Beach this summer.
What are black skimmers doing on the roof? Traditionally, skimmers gathered in big colonies on the beach each summer where they scraped out shallow nests for their eggs in the sand. Eggs and chicks are easy prey on the beach, especially when parents are disturbed and abandon their nests. Our boisterous presence on the beach scares adults away. Raccoons, ghost crabs, cats, dogs and the occasional coyote devour skimmer eggs and chicks if given the chance. Skimmers decided to find new nesting sites rather than dodge Frisbees and let their young become food for prey.
The black skimmers may have followed another shorebird, the least tern, to the gravel roof of Motel 6. Tiny least terns are very adaptable and have been nesting on flat, tar and gravel roofs since the 1970s. They have almost completely abandoned beaches for nesting, instead preferring roofs, cleared construction sites and islands. The Motel 6 has been their go to nesting site in the area for years, and early each summer, hundreds are hatched on the roof.
The biggest threat for both terns and skimmers is loss of nesting habitat. Beaches are too busy with people and predators, and now the roofs that shorebirds prefer are disappearing. Tar and gravel roofs were common in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s but are being replaced with smooth roofing that is impossible to nest on. Roof nesting has other drawbacks. Though one could build a roof that would be ideal for hatching birds, this is not what roofs are designed for. So if gravel on the roof isn’t thick enough, chicks can get stuck in the black tar underneath or parents can’t scrape a nest that is deep enough to prevent eggs from rolling out. If storm drains and gutters aren’t covered, chicks get stuck or wash into downspouts. If there is no edge or parapet wall on the roof, chicks will go over the edge.
Mitchell explains: “All these beach nesting birds come out of eggs able to walk and run. They have no concept of roof. They just run to the edge and keep going.” The skimmer chicks that ran off the edge of the Motel 6 landed, if not with grace, then at least unscathed. Unfortunately, once on the ground, still unable to fly up, several lost their lives to cars and cats. Fatalities would have been higher if it weren’t for the chick savers. They arrived every day from mid-July to mid-September with chick-a-boom in hand. The chick-a-boom is an ingenious device for getting chicks back up on the roof. It is a cardboard orange juice carton with soft cotton on the bottom and a lid taped to one edge that is fastened to a telescoping pole. Chicks are placed in the carton, hoisted up, and gently emptied back onto the roof.
It’s not easy running a motel underneath a bird rookery. It can be tough balancing the needs of birds with the needs of guests. Amy Green, guest services representative at the motel says: “Guests either absolutely love or absolutely hate the birds.” If you would like to experience the thrill of baby skimmers or baby least terns on your beach vacation next summer and don’t mind the chatter or a trip to the carwash afterwards, Motel 6 is your place.
Want to volunteer as a chick saver? Contact the Florida Shorebird Alliance (www.flshorebirdalliance.org). Want to make the beach a nicer place for least terns and skimmers when they finally get there? Use BlueTubes (www.bluetubebeach.org)! Grab a bag on your way to the beach, pick up trash and throw it away.