Bittersweet Skimmer Colony Memories

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For a year I've been looking forward to the hatching of a new crop of Black Skimmers at a colony located on the West Coast of Florida.  Approximately 500 adults return to the same patch of beach to make their nests and raise their chicks.  Closely supervised by the Audubon bird stewards, these birds co-exist with happy beachgoers.  "Aw!  It's a baby!  Look, the babies match the color of the sand!  Why are their beaks so funny?  Is that an egg?  Where are their nests?  What are these birds doing here?"  It's amazing how the sight of a newborn, human or animal, can evoke such feeling from passersby.  And that's good for the birds, who with each passing year need more understanding and protection as we humans build up their beaches.

My visit to the colony was about a week after the first eggs started to hatch.  Last year I visited after the chicks were a little older, and as much as I enjoyed them, I wanted to see some newborns.  Some photographers have even gotten so lucky as to get the chicks coming out of the egg!  I didn't get to see a hatching on this trip, but I did see lots of tiny fish brought in to feed the babies.  It's amazing how these big birds with beaks designed to catch big fish manage to bring these tiny minnows to their newborns.

As you may imagine, it's not easy for a tiny chick to eat a big fish!  The adult birds have a knack of tossing the fish back in their mouth, orienting the fish to be head-first, and then executing the big gulp.  Babies are born with the gist of this knack, but they need a little practice to perfect the technique.  This chick, for example, knew that the fish needed to go in his mouth, but struggled with getting it there…

This chick almost got the fish orientation correct, but had a lot of trouble executing that final gulp.  It's a little funny, and a little painful, to watch the tiniest of chicks as they struggle to swallow the fish.  Often the tail sticks out of the chick's open mouth for several minutes as the chick opens his throat wide.  He'll struggle for a minute, then lie panting on the sand to rest, then summon all his energy and try again.  Eventually the fish goes down and the chick runs off to beg for another.  So I guess it's not as bad as it looks!

This chick is a little older.  His pin feathers are starting to poke out of his baby downy fuzz.  He wandered away from Mom, then started to forage for his own food.  All he could find in the sand was this little bone, which he proudly picked up.  Maybe it was a subtle hint to his dad that it was time to go for a nice skim! 

After a nice supper, this chick cuddled up next to Mom and his unborn baby brother.  These birds are so vulnerable on the beach.  Their nests are mere hollows in the sand, and Mom provides the best shelter with her strong wings.  Laughing gulls swoop by, happy to make an easy meal out of a defenseless chick.  Yet there is safety in numbers, and the adults of the colony come together to protect their young. 

But Mother Nature can be so cruel. The week after I took these pictures, Tropical Storm Debby formed in the Gulf.  While first considered to be a much-needed source of rain, the tropical storm lagged over the west coast for several long days, pummeling the beaches with rains and strong winds.  The tide overtook this colony, washing much of the beach away.  Skimmer eggs are not viable after being exposed to cold, wet conditions for any extended duration.  The chicks that have already hatched can swim, but they were no match for the strong tides.  Adults huddled with a few of the oldest chicks for several long days. From what I've read, after the storm passed the bird stewards christened the lone surviving chick "Orphan Annie."

But the devastation can actually be good for the species, in the long run.  It replenishes the beaches,  sweeping away the debris that can hide predators.  It's not too late in the season for these birds to re-nest, although they have already spent a lot of their energy in the incubation of their eggs and the care of their first brood of chicks.  It's probably better for the birds if they rest and recuperate.  Hopefully next year they will return to the same general area of the beach, and we can look forward to many more hot afternoons spent laughing at the antics of sand-colored fuzzballs. :)


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!

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