One of my favorite summertime photo opportunities is at a Black Skimmer colony in Indian Rocks Beach. The skimmers come to nest on the beach in front of some condos, and it’s very easy to photograph them with their babies.
This year I went over to the colony with my dad for Father’s Day. He loved it!
Unfortunately, Mother Nature sometimes challenges the birds with tropical storms and hurricanes that wash out the nests. Last year all but a handful of babies were killed within days of hatching. This year, Tropical Storm Andrea all but wiped out the colony again, this time a week or two before the babies started to hatch. It was so sad.
But there’s a bright side: a couple of the nests survived! On Father’s Day we found two nests with two babies each. One nest still had two eggs, and my friend Michel told me that one of those hatched later in the afternoon. It was so great to see that a few babies survived the storm!
There’s a big pile of dead eggs in the middle of the colony, remnants of the tropical storm. The birds are re-nesting, though! I saw lots of courtship behaviors while we were there. Usually I go to the colony after the babies have hatched, so it was my first opportunity to watch the nesting behaviors. The skimmers are such fun birds to observe.
Much of the courtship centers around fish. I guess the male proves that he can provide for a family by proving that he can provide for his prospective mate! We saw lots of single birds wandering around with fish in their beaks. The small fish are baby food (keep reading!) The bigger fish are courtship gifts. The male presents the fish to a mate, who then takes it and holds it in her mouth while the male mates with her. To keep this a family-friendly blog, we’ll just call that a piggy-back ride! :)
It’s very difficult to photograph the piggy-back rides. They are very fast! Usually by the time you can get focused, the action is done. So I was happy to get a few shots. I love how the bird continues to hold her fish throughout. Then the male seems to raise his wings in victory while the female finally gets to eat.
These birds really are colony birds. There’s all this courtship action in a very confined space! There’s no such thing as privacy on this beach!
The two nests with babies were at the back of the colony, where the beach is highest. Those parents were very dedicated to keep incubating their eggs through the whole tropical storm. The parents were very attentive to their babies. For the most part Mom kept them tucked under her wing. She let them come out when Papa brought in fish for breakfast, though!
It’s so sweet to watch these birds interact. The adults with those big beaks come back with tiny tiny fish for their chicks. They stand patiently holding the fish as the baby comes running up and then figures out how to eat the fish. Often it takes several tries for the baby to take the fish and swallow it. Papa stands by protectively while the babies eat.
I’ll admit to some Photoshop manipulation to get clean backgrounds on some of these images. Actually I learned my lesson last year when I had difficulty using the clone stamp without repeating patterns in the image. So this year I thought like a digital photographer, and I took several images with just sand to use for substituting backgrounds. Then I apply a layer mask to reveal the white sand instead of the neighboring birds. It certainly makes the pictures cuter when you don’t see all the extra wings and legs of the neighboring birds in the background!
At one point an Osprey (I think?) flew over the colony. The ENTIRE colony flew off! Only one adult remained, and that was our Mom who stayed with her two babies and her two eggs. Our other parents abandoned their babies and flew off, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves. The babies flattened themselves into the sand, where they blended in well. I got a few pictures as they perked up when Mom and Dad returned.
Black Skimmer nests are just little scrapes in the sand. I was surprised to see both adults sitting in the scrapes as part of their courtship behaviors. I was hoping to see a bird lay an egg, but none of them cooperated with me. I’m looking forward to returning in a few weeks, when the new babies should be hatching. I hope no more bad weather comes our way – these birds have had more than their share of bad luck in the past two years!
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!