Focus On Nature: Beach birds of the Fork and Florida

After our cold, windy winter weather here we decided to get out and see what Mother Nature had done to our beaches. We found that she did the same thing here in Florida that she does on Fire Island and Long Island; she eroded the beaches with extremely high tides and devastating winds that cut the beach off sharply half-way up from the water’s edge.

As we stood there looking at the winter beach we recalled an earlier visit we had made. We had walked this beach to the south of Beer Can Island and enjoyed seeing great numbers of shore birds — gulls, terns of all kinds and black skimmers — resting on the white sandy beach.

Hundreds of these birds were lined up like a high school marching band on the upper beach. They seemed perfectly content to rest in the sun, probably because their bellies were full. None of them seemed to mind if we were walking around or crawling around them for photographs. Black skimmers are social birds that form large colonies or flocks. They gather with different species of terns, getting some protection from the terns’ aggressive behavior.

One lonely tern was trying to take a nap away from the crowd while we took pictures of it. Standing on one foot and resting the other, it laid its head on its back, tucking its bill under its wing, its ears always alert to any danger.
The skimmer is a large bird with a knife-like bill that catches small fish in shallow water. We watched in amazement one night at the end of our pier as feeding skimmers flew low over the water with their bills open and their lower mandibles slicing through the surface.

The skimmer’s red-orange bill is uniquely designed so that when the bird flies close to the water it can lower its bill into the water and pick up a meal on the wing. When the lower bill touches a fish it snaps down instantly to catch it. It’s always a thrill to see Nature’s design work out so beautifully.

We had been fishing off the end of the pier, and when darkness approached, these birds, which usually enjoy dawn and dark feeding, flew past the lights of the pier and then out into the darkness to continue their nightly feeding.

It reminded me of years ago when I camped overnight on the Moriches Flats with Judd Bennett and we could hear the skimmers’ doglike bark as they skimmed the water and snapped up the fish near us.
We spoke earlier of the terns’ aggressiveness, which the skimmers enjoy for protection as they nest or flock on the beach. Terns are noted for this aggressiveness when threatened by any predator.

I remember when Judd Bennett and Dennis Puleston and I went into a tern colony to band some of the birds, the diving, chattering terns would dive at our heads. They would draw blood if you weren’t protected by a hat. If you wore a hat it would become white-washed from the excrement that was flying through the air from the birds’ excitement. This situation is also true when the volunteers band large numbers of terns on Gull Island off Long Island. They wear large brimmed hats to protect themselves there as well.

We see terns and black skimmers in our bays today, but nothing like years ago. In reading through one of my journals recently about some of the boats we owned over the years, I ran across this entry,

“June 16th, 1967 — Took boat out and slept overnight off Robins Island. The terns and skimmers are really doing fine over there. I can remember their nesting over there when I was a kid (in the ’30s) but lately they were driven away — glad to see them back.”

Keep your eyes open for the terns in and around our bays and watch carefully for the time you will see your first black skimmer glide slowly by, slicing the water with its lower mandible and waiting for a small fish to hit to snap it up.

We will be spending time visiting the beautiful white sandy beach down here in Florida again as the weather warms up and the beach repairs itself. We look forward to spending time with the shore birds and photographing them as they rest and relax along the beautiful beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.