Monday, February 25, 2013

Black Skimmer Surprise

Florida 2013 continued

Every trip down to Florida I try to make it to the beach at least once before sunrise. Sheppard Park is a busy place during the day, and so morning is an opportunity to spend some time by the ocean without the oiled and bikini-clad crowds. In the area of the park, it is also the only time of day you'll see anything other than a few gulls, as the other birds just don't tolerate all those people.

A few years ago I had gotten some shots of black skimmers. But it was before I really understood what I needed to do to get decent images of birds, and many were blurred and dim. I was really hoping there would be skimmers so I could get some better images.

When we arrived there were no skimmers in sight. I didn't even seen any terns, just a rag-tag group of gulls. I'm not excited about gulls, don't know them well and can ID only a few on sight. I snapped some half-hearted shots as I walked north up the beach. There were a few sanderlings and a ruddy turnstone, but they were not what I was looking for.

After a while I walked back down the beach and stood near the water for a few minutes. When I turned around to look back to the north I was stunned to see a small flock of skimmers had landed next to me!

Hello, Lady, we hear you're looking for black skimmers. Well, here we are!

I was so excited! I've never been this close to these peculiar birds before. I knelt down in the wet sand and started shooting.

Their feet look so small compared to the length of their bodies, but much of that length is beak and wings, which protrude several inches past their tail.

Such an oddity, the black skimmer is. First, there's that enormous and lopsided orange and black beak. Because their eyes are situated up in the their black caps, they look eyeless from a distance. Short but long-bodied, with bright orange legs and small black toes to match the beak, they look like they're wearing a clown suit.

I noticed, looking at this cropped image, that their nostrils are way down at the bottom edge of their top bill. Hmmm....


 This bird is clearly an immature, presumably from last summer's brood.

This was an incidental capture as I was focused on another bird, but this shows how thin the beak is. There's a reason for that....

Black skimmers feed by flying low over water near shore with the elongated and very narrow lower bill slicing through the shallows. When it hits something the bird brings its head down rapidly, snapping upper bill to lower, so that its whole beak is pointed straight down and in the water. Must be why its nostrils are on the sides of its beak--it would get water up its nose otherwise! Their long wings probably allow them to get enough lift with just half a stroke, since they fly so close to the water.

Photo from my 2010 post--I didn't see any skimmers feeding this time 'round.

I spent quite a while watching them as they are not a bird we see here in Southeast Michigan, and I think they are just amazing.

Unlike the gulls and terns and other shore birds the skimmers seemed ill at ease with people walking by on the beach--and there were a lot of people out enjoying the morning. The flock would just get settled, then someone would come along and they'd take to the air again. This made for some nice shots of them in flight--but that's for next time!