Story and Photos by Budd Titlow
Black skimmers are my enigma bird. Just when I think they couldn’t possibly be around, they show up in droves. Then when I think it’s a perfect day to see some, they’re nowhere to be found.
Here’s what I mean. The first time I ever saw these squat-legged, beach-loving birds with the distinctively-protruding lower mandibles (bills) was a few years ago on a blistering hot day in the middle of August. My wife, Debby, and I traveled from our Tallahassee home to St. George Island State Park—near Apalachicola, Florida—just to escape the oppressive heat and humidity. The last thing I expected on such a sweltering day was finding any birds at all, much less one that I had never seen before.
But there they were—nestled down into the hot sand just above the surf line—at least 50 skimmers in one dense flock. I spent several joyful hours watching and photographing the skimmers—along with several colonies of terns—as they busily caught small fish and fed their young.
So last summer and fall I again traveled to St. George Island State Park—not just once, but three times—in hopes of repeating my glorious day of skimmer photography. On each trip, the weather was perfect—temperatures in the low eighties accompanied by bright sunshine and a gentle sea breeze. And—you guessed it—not a skimmer, or even a tern—in sight. In fact, the only birds I saw were a few scattered gulls and a solitary willet or two—in total—during my three trips.
Now fast forward to this past January and a beach day in southwest Florida’s Fort De Soto Municipal Park that was—as they say—fit for neither man nor beast. The wind was blowing a gale—at least 40 mph gusts—and, in fact, there were several tornadoes in the area during the previous night. So imagine my surprise when I dutifully plodded past the restrooms and picnic areas and looked out at the crashing surf to see several hundred skimmers and gulls all hunkered down and facing into the teeth of the bracing wind. Despite the unruly weather, I was able to enjoy another morning of skimmer photography.
Black skimmers are one of only three species of skimmers found worldwide. They are resident along our southern Atlantic, southern Pacific, and Gulf coasts. While not listed federally, they are considered a “Species of Special Concern” in several states, including Florida. The main threats to skimmers are development and other disturbances of their preferred sandy beach habitats. Since they nest in shallow scrapes typically located close to the water’s edge, they are also highly susceptible to oil spills and other oceanic contamination. According to the North American Water Bird Conservation Plan, there are 65,000 – 70,000 breeding black skimmers in North America.
If you are fortunate enough to see a group of skimmers feeding, you’re really in for a treat. As their name indicates, they soar gracefully along with their longer mandible gliding through the water. Since they are tactile feeders, when the mandible touches a prey—a small fish or crustacean—the upper maxilla immediately snaps down to snag it.
Finally, there’s this: One of the collective names for these birds is an “embezzlement of skimmers”. No one seems to know the origin of this term, but I have my own idea. I would like to press charges against them for stealing my time when I go out and can’t find them anywhere.
About Budd Titlow
A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has authored four books, including PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), and SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3). He is currently writing weekly birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology-birding-photography courses for Florida State University, and serving as President-Elect of Apalachee Audubon Society. Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com).