Seeing is believing…and yet who can believe that such tiny Black Skimmer chicks can swallow fish almost as big as they are? :)
I went back to the Black Skimmer colony this morning. After the incredible sunset last night, I knew not to expect great light angles on the colony this morning. So I was happy when the sun went behind the clouds, providing nice gentle lighting conditions that allowed me to photograph the birds without worrying about backlight. I spread out my towel on the sand, lowered the Beast as much as I could, and then waited for the chicks to come out and play. They did…
There were a lot of fish being brought into the colony this morning. Unlike other birds, who eat tidbits regurgitated by the parents for their first few days of life, these baby skimmers eat fish. Whole fish. All by themselves. I really think some of the fish are bigger than the babies themselves!
I watched this baby struggle with his fish for about 10 minutes. He took it into his mouth, got it positioned to slide down his throat, and then tried to do the fatal gulp. But his throat’s not as big as Mom’s, and he couldn’t get the fish down. He tried and tried. He tried so hard that he had to lie down and rest, his whole body heaving with the effort. (I wonder how he could breathe with that fish stuck in his throat?) Then he’d jump up, and try again to swallow. He finally got it down!
I spotted a few nests over on the far edge of the colony, close to the ropes without other nests close. The solitary nesters are fun to photograph, as the beach provides a nice uncluttered background for the pictures. (Shooting right into the center of the colony almost inevitably included a bunch of other birds in the pictures.) One of the solitary nesters had two chicks, who were both pretty active little guys. They wiggled their way under Mom’s wings and then posed for a nice close-up:
This nest was really close to the ropes, and apparently the birds didn’t quite appreciate that the ropes were there for their own protection. After a while, the adults stood up and walked outside the area, followed by their little chicks. They wandered a few feet away, then dug a little hole and set up to brood the chicks there. I tried to explain to them that they’d be safer inside the rope, but they didn’t seem to want to listen to the crazy lady with the big camera. Their position did provide one benefit, though. The background was the soft blue of the Gulf.
The sun came out for a few moments at a time, then went back under the clouds. At one point when the sun came out, I was stretched out facing the colony, and I’d just spotted this little family portrait. Mom was sitting with a chick tucked under her wing, and she picked up a piece of broken eggshell and held it in her beak. I said to myself that a badly lit picture might be better than no picture at all, so I did my best and adjusted the bright highlights in Photoshop.
I think one of the little chicks had just hatched that morning. His feathers were still damp, and he looked a little scruffy. It’s fun to observe how Nature works with different bird species. Some newborn birds, like a lot of songbirds, are born blind, featherless, and helpless. In contrast, these skimmer babies are born and immediately start walking around (and eating big fish!)
In case you’re wondering what this place looks like, here’s a panorama of the colony. It’s right behind the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, surprisingly close to the condos and volleyball nets on the beach. What’s really cool is that people vacationing there are intrigued by the birds, and they stop and watch and ask questions about them.
Like last night, I tried and tried to get pictures of the babies as they ran at the camera. It’s harder than it sounds, especially if you try for chicks that are out in the open. Here’s my favorite little begger:
Rich and I finally packed up and headed home after the sun came out for good around 10:30. It was an incredible trip. I highly recommend it, and you don’t need a Beast to get good pictures. We’ll have to remember this colony nest year (unless I can’t resist the urge to go back in a few weeks to photograph the fledglings!)
Want to learn more about nature photography at Black Skimmer Colonies?
Check out my Black Skimmer Colonies page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!