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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Liam didn't really remember meeting Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds Blog at Midwest Birding Symposium a few years back. So he was wondering what it would be like to go birding with him in Florida. 
I told him, "Corey's one of my favorite people. He's cool, he's funny, he has a sweet son named Desi, and the best thing about him is he gets as excited about seeing birds as I do. You'll like him."
They were thick as thieves within a few minutes.

Plus, we got to wear shorts in January. That worked for us. 

Liam discovered that he and Corey shared a mutual love of boat-tailed grackles. Which appear to be eating some kind of breakfast cereal here. Saw a woman feeding disgusting sugary breakfast cereal to the gulls on Daytona Beach, too. What's with that? I don't believe in feeding wild birds food I wouldn't eat myself, with the possible exception of suet...I'd eat Zick Dough in a pinch.

We went to see the pack of black skimmers that hang out by a causeway near Historic Titusville.

I loves me some skimmers. Their weird asymmetrical bills are used as fish lures. The skimmer beats low over quiet waters, raking the surface with the tip of the mandible, its bill open wide. Fish rise to the line cut in the water.  When the mandible hits a fish, the maxilla(upper bill) snaps downward, trapping the fish in a millisecond.  The bird's head bends under and it comes up with a fish, which it often swallows in flight. I really don't understand how they do it, or how in the heck you catch a slippery little fish with two knives on edge, but they've got it down. It must work pretty well.

There always seems to be such a range of bill and body sizes in any skimmer flock. Males are about 1/4 bigger than females, and young skimmers take awhile to attain full size. 

They're among the most graceful fliers of all. I love to watch them slice the air and water.

Black skimmers have spread up the East Coast, nesting in New York and Massachusetts now. Huzzah! I love it when cool birds expand their range. 

I also love seeing that incredible bill head-on. Get a load of the left top male. 

Well, that helps explain how he cuts the water without dragging himself under. 
It's pretty unusual to see a black skimmer's eyes, so well-concealed they are in the black cap. I'm thinking the black cap functions to cut glare in the brilliant sun-on-water conditions the skimmer lives in, much like the black stuff football players wipe under their eyes. 

I remember looking at a beautiful skimmer painting the terrific artist Don Eckelberry showed to a little group of us bird artists at his house on Long Island back in the 1980's. He hadn't painted their eyes. "Have you ever seen a black skimmer's eyes?" he asked. Nope. We hadn't. So Don didn't paint them in. And the skimmers looked fine.

I also remember his saying, "If a bird is black, get out your tube of black paint and paint it BLACK. Don't paint it blue or brown or anything else. Just paint it BLACK."

I love the breathless moment when they lift off. Oh, to fly with them.

We saw a handful of brown pelicans, and some white ones, too, flapping slowly over Canaveral Seashore. Birds a-poppin'.


His beak reminds me of needle-nosed pliers. It's a Swiss army bird!

Posted by Anonymous February 15, 2015 at 4:14 AM

I hadn't thought about boat-tailed grackles in years. I do miss those Florida birds.

A friend of mine is a bird rehabber in Atlantic County, NJ. He said that they get a large number of skimmers with beak injuries, usually sustained by striking objects in the water. So there are consequences to such a cool adaptation!

Good point and excellent shot demonstrating the narrowness of the beak. This puts paid to the ideas that have circulated for years that some pterosaurs used their beaks this way. No pterosaur yet found has a beak that narrowl

Oh, to be back on the beach again.

Well, actually, I was out at Jones Beach this week but it's not quite the same when you are wearing multiple layers and you start to lose feeling in your nose.

You'll have to come out here to New York in June so you can visit one of our skimmer colonies. Baby skimmers!

I guess birders named Corey are just great guys all around!

Wonderful skimmer shots and the grackle looks to be dancing.

That feeding description has me boggled though. If I'm the skimmer, aren't I past the groove in the water by the time a fish notices and rises?
Just the shadow of a bird will cause surface schools to duck and cover, so I'm not sure why I would choose to rise to a shadow and a surface disturbance if I were a finger mullet.

Just from watching them casually, I've always thought they relied on the abundance of mullet, menhaden, glass minnows, and killifish that crowd the surface waters.

Either way, it amazes me that they get enough food with that feeding method. I feel the same way about woodstork feeding strategy.
Obviously it works, but dang...

I knew I was being too slapdash here. I'm not speaking from a place of knowing skimmers well. But my understanding is that they cut the water (usually around dusk) fish rise to the light, they quarter back, still cutting, and get whatever they hit on the second pass. Lemme go root around a bit and see if that's what actually happens...
Birds of North America did not enlighten me at all on this score. There was even a mention that some authors viewed skimming as unrelated to feeding? Hmmm. They did say that skimming is usually done while the bird is gliding, on motionless wings. True? So--flapflapflapglide-skimflapflapflap?
I did get this little tidbit that pleased me: "Anterior end of the esophagus is highly muscularized and forms a pseudosphincter that very likely prevents the swallowing of water while birds are skimming (MG unpubl. data). Unlike terns and gulls, captured young virtually never regurgitate, perhaps owing to this sphincter."
Mr. Powers, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figger out what those birds are actually doing while skimming/fishing.

Skimmers are one of my favourite birds - maybe because I only see them when I'm on holidays, but still. I love to watch them work.

Coincidentally was amazed to note the burnt umber feathers in the primary/secondary coverts of the skimmers I observed closely on a spit of sandbar today on Biolab Road, Merritt Island NWR. I had always thought they were totally B&W with that slash of orange bill. I spent the day there with an Orange Audubon group, always totally dazzled out there, sun splintering off the choppy waters, uncountable dazzling tree swallows. Gotta love a world that has roseate spoonbills in it. Real Florida.

They may just be showing off.

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