Happy Independence Day! Today we celebrate our country’s independence, and along the shores of Indian Rocks Beach, a colony of tiny Black Skimmer hatchlings celebrate their freedom from their eggshells! :) My dad and I visited the colony two weeks ago when the babies were just starting to hatch, and we had an outstanding afternoon of photography. It seemed that every pair of adults had at least one tiny chick, and several were still wet from the egg. Combine that with sweet afternoon light, and it was one of the best days of photography I’ve had in a long time. It certainly took me long enough to process some images and write this blog post!
We arrived at the colony in the late afternoon, and the sun was harsh on the hot sand. People and birds alike were hot and sweaty. The babies don’t tend to get active until later in the evening, when the breeze kicks in a bit and the sun starts to go down. So we were happy to see some chicks, and we scouted out some good nests. Some, like the one above, had a mix of chicks and eggs. I love getting images of Mom, a baby, and a sibling yet to hatch!
Where there are babies, there will be feedings. These tiny chicks eat a lot of fish, and sometimes, the fish are almost as big as they are! The parent bird brings in a fish from the ocean, and fly over the colony, trying to locate his mate and their young ones. Sometimes he lands in the wrong spot and gets run off by the skimmers who think they are invading his territory. When he finally locates his family, he is bombarded by the beaks of his babies, who all demand the fish in his mouth. Once a baby grabs the fish, he swallows it whole. When the babies are recent hatchlings, it can take them several minutes to work the fish down. Many a baby stands panting on the sand with a fish tail hanging out of his mouth while he tries and tries again to execute the final gulp!
Did I mention that sometimes it requires so much effort that the babies fall down on the sand? Plop! I love how the sand is flying around the feet of this little guy who sat down hard, wings flailing, as he concentrates on his dinner. (Shameless Photoshop warning – there was a parent in the background distracting from the cuteness of this chick! Several of these images have had beach cleanup or distracting background removal.)
When my dad and I left the colony that night, we noticed a sign that said Triumph is the “umph” behind the “try”. Well, that was the perfect way to describe the efforts of these tiny chicks!
I felt a little sorry for the dark black parent birds, who must have been roasting in the hot Florida sun as they sat on the beach incubating their young babies. The babies were clearly hot, too. Every time Mom would stand up, the babies would race around her to sit in her shade. I loved how the baby above peeked out from behind Mom. This is a “birdie butt” shot with a cute surprise!
Cute? Did someone say cute? :) This little guy wandered to the edge of the colony, where he stood posing for a few seconds until his mom made him come back to his hole.
As the sun started to go down, the moms started to stand up more, giving us better looks at the babies underneath. The above hole had three tiny chicks in it. I named them Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, after the days that I guessed they’d been born. (The smallest chick was a recent hatching, but he was staying in the shade of his older brother!) They seemed to take great interest when Mom picked up the last remaining eggshell and carried it off.
Some of those older siblings are quite vicious! At this particular nest, the oldest chick was a little bully. Every chance he got, he’d start biting his little sisters. Mom didn’t seem to notice or care, which surprised me a little. With these birds it really is “survival of the fittest.” I guess if the little ones survive their mean older brother, they’ll be better prepared to prosper in a world that requires them to migrate, find food, and survive despite the devastating loss of habitat.
This mommy bird reminded me of my parent’s cat Missy with her lazy stubborn streak. Mom was lying on the sand, comfortably incubating her tiny hatchlings. Her partner brought in a fish for Junior, but Junior dropped it on the sand about a foot away. Mom didn’t want the fish to go to waste, but she didn’t want to get up, either! So she stretched and stretched that long beak of hers and finally managed to retrieve the fish. On the second try, Junior managed to swallow his dinner.
The Black Skimmer parents are amazing to watch. They use those huge beaks to bring back the tiniest fish they can find for their babies. Even so, the tiniest fish are huge in comparison to the chicks. The parents usually pre-chew the fish a little, then hand it off to the chick, who usually drops it. The parents patiently stand there, picking up the fish and handing it back to the baby, who thinks it’s hard work maneuvering the fish into his mouth! The fish tends to get pretty sandy, but the birds don’t seem to mind. Often both parents hover protectingly around their chick while the baby tries to eat. That’s about all they can to do help, just keep the other birds from stealing the fish while the young one figures out the mechanics of eating.
At one point a parent flew right in front of me with a needlefish. He came to the edge of the colony to do some pre-chews before handing it off to a baby. With this frontal view, I felt like I got a chick’s-eye view of mealtime…and if I were a chick, I think my first reaction to Dad would be, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” :)
The colony is a very busy place, with hundreds of birds nesting in a small roped-off area. The colony environment is good for the birds, who work together to ward off predators, like the seagulls that constantly swoop in trying to snatch a chick for dinner. The bad thing for photographers, though, is that it’s hard to isolate the birds. Who wants to see a cute fish handoff with Dad’s butt in the way? So I was very pleased when this little family posed with a nice white background. Seeing both parents framed around their two chicks was so sweet. Hehe, although the chicks thought that Dad had flown in with a fish, so they came scurrying out from under Mom to greet him. When they realized that his mouth was empty, they starting fighting with each other!
The setting afternoon sun casts a beautiful golden light on the skimmer colony. It only lasts for a few minutes, and it’s my favorite part of each visit to the colony. I loved how this little chick tucked himself under Mom’s wing. At first I was focusing on the chick, but when I saw the shot I quickly took several images, which I stitched together in a panorama in Photoshop.
Apparently, if Mom doesn’t pay enough attention to her babies, a good way to get her attention is to bite her tail. I saw several chicks try this, but it didn’t seem to produce the desired effect!
The sun dropped below the horizon, ending one of my best days at this wonderful place. It was so good, in fact, that I headed right back over there the next evening. The babies aren’t this tiny and adorable for very long! So you can look forward to more cuteness in the next post…
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!
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