Black Skimmers

The afternoon of May 1 2014 . Heislerville N.J. I joined a small organized group on an afternoon walkabout billed as Shorebirds at Heislerville with Pete Dunne. We made our way along an elevated causeway with open waters to one side and enclosed ponds on the other. It was high tide, and I’d forgotten that shorebirds live for low tide when millions of acres of mudflats are exposed and the living is easy; at high tide they gather in large groups in peaceful refuges; just like these ponds. I have never seen so many shorebirds in one place as I saw this afternoon. I have a feeling that there will be even more in coming days and perhaps the thousands I admired are just a shadow of the millions upon billions that showed up before the days of widespread market hunting. The species variety was limited to a handful: Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper and Semi-palmated Plover, there could have been a couple of oddities around too but I didn’t find them.

Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers

Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers

But there were others that don’t so readily fall into the shorebirds group: Great Egrets, a Sandhill Crane and (Bird of the Afternoon) Black Skimmers. Skimmers are strange birds, superficially they are rather like an oversized black-backed tern with a stout scarlet bill. It’s the bill that sets them apart from all other birds, for the lower mandible is far longer than the upper. This arrangement makes for one of nature’s more curious feeding techniques, the bird skims fast and low over the water with its lower mandible slicing the surface in what I would have thought was a rather silly, if not desperate, attempt to catch dinner. Apparently it works well enough though and the group I had admired were living proof of it. Either they have an uncanny ability to discern what’s just ahead because you’d think (wouldn’t you) that any detritus lying just below the surface would be life shortening,  or they live short risky lives. I had seen skimmers once or twice before, but only fleetingly, so today’s luxuriously long study opportunity was something of a milestone. The Black Skimmer is for me one of those bizarre aberrations of nature that deserves a page to itself in one of an elaborately illustrated,19th. Century natural history works, books with titles like A Compendium of Fowles of the Air.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer  skimming

Black Skimmer skimming

There was some excitement when a Tri-colored Heron was spotted flying some distance away. Quite unusual I was told, so when I found one, maybe the same one, a little later and alone, I felt quite privileged. Birds will often view a car, even a moving one, as less of a threat than a person and it so it was that I was able to watch the heron for several minutes while it stalked and eventually captured a small fish.Tri-colored Heron