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A Bird’s Eye View - December 17, 2010

“The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, and snaps the bill shut when it contacts a fish.”

-Kenn Kaufman

Lives of North American Birds

 In a few weeks my wife and I will be on Longboat Key, Florida for our sixth winter. Almost every morning during the past winters I’ve crossed the street to Whitney Beach. After walking for one-third of a mile there is practically always a collection of shorebirds that I call the “assembled multitude.” This mass includes gray-headed laughing gulls, royal terns with long orange bills, some sandwich terns with yellow on the tips of their black bills, a few Forster’s terns and black skimmers.

Sometimes there are only a few black skimmers; other days there can be 40. On a really good day the sand is dotted black with up to 200 of these unmistakable birds, which are the most striking and the most skittish birds on the beach. Most fly to the beach during mid-morning from nearby Jewfish Island, about a mile and a half away where I believe they nest. They don’t feed on the beach but rather hang out. People never fail to take notice of them.

The skimmers’ hoods, upper wings and back are black. The bill, red at the base, is black from middle to tip. The bottom half of the face is white as are the neck, breast and belly. Long and built low to the ground, with short red legs and feet, they oddly resemble dachshunds. Their long red and black torch-like bills have mandibles of uneven length. The lower is noticeably longer than the upper and is used to skim the water’s surface for fish.

This past winter I was able to look at one skimmer directly head-on, getting a unique view of the bill. At its base the bill was thick and where it joined the bird’s face it resembled a solidly joined piece of plastic. The bill then tapered to a thin rapier-like point. Above the bill was a forehead of white where I expected to see eyes, but the bird appeared eyeless. However, just above the white area where the black begins, in the short black feathers were the bird’s eyes, which have vertical pupils that, when narrowed to slits, mitigate glare from water and sand.

A skimmer will sometimes lie face and bill down in the sand. The first time that I saw this I thought the bird was dead. It looked like a still life painting. As I cautiously approached, there were no signs of violent collision. Then, just like that, it rose and walked away. One morning I was talking to an experienced birder with a long camera lens who was looking at one “playing dead.” Having seen this a few times I told him that the skimmer was alive. As he got closer, the bird got up and walked away.

Another morning I was by the spot on the beach where the skimmers hang out when they flew in over the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a little frightening to be directly in the flight path of 40 spread-out, low flying, long-winged skimmers coming in to land. Initially they looked low enough to collide with me but as they approached it was evident that they were above me. Veering apart, they gave me a wide berth. This has happened other times. Once there were five waves of skimmers, each having about 40 birds. The experience was exhilarating.

One sunny afternoon when the ocean was rough after a rain, I watched at least a dozen skimmers come in low over the water. Their long bent back, black wings and red and black bills appeared in sharp contrast to the rolling green ocean. As they slowly turned and came lower it was like looking at a living painting. They came over the beach and landed at the periphery of a large mixed group of beach birds without disrupting them.

Another time I was out at the northernmost tip of Longboat Key, a picturesque area of white sands and ravaged trees called Beer Can Island. Under a non-ending gray cloud, a group of skimmers looking grimly black came from nearby Jewfish Island. Like a rollercoaster they flew up and then down and up again then back down toward the water as if drawn by a magnet. It was as if music that the human ear couldn’t hear was driving them. When I got to where the assembled multitude gathered there were 195 skimmers. They were blacker than black and clearer than clear. Even though laughing gulls and royal terns were also there, the skimmers owned the scene.

Skimmers are skittish. At the approach of a person who may be too close for their comfort, they will start to walk away. Little children take delight in running directly toward them and adults sometimes don’t give them a wide berth, causing the skimmers to fly. One of the last times I saw them this past winter they’d risen up for no apparent reason, as they sometimes do, and were going out over the water. Standing beneath them as they moved in a slow curve I felt like I was beneath a not quite finished living, canopy. I knew that the skimmers would momentarily come back probably to the same spot that they’d just left. But while they were in the air, the moment was magic and I gave myself over to it. Skimmers can do that to you.