A lot of visitors to the beach this week, new year and all. Certainly a few have been attracted by the spurt of unseasonably warm weather and are here to bask in the 70° temperatures. A few even splash briefly in the ocean, but quickly discover the water is uncomfortably cold and a world apart from the sun washed beach. Along with warmer temperatures has come a lessening of the hard-blowing north wind, and the invitation to shed jackets and sweaters. Walking in jeans and T-shirt is just about right under these year end conditions.
The past two days have offered a sky of perfect cerulean blue made even more exhilarating by the clarity of light and air. Apart from the unfortunate catfish that still battle cold water and end up as bird food, the sand too has a fresh, clean look. The birds are back in large numbers and fortunately for them food in excess lies waiting. Still, there is less animal, shell and plant life about now, and for long stretches of walking the runnels, drifts and pockets of sand offer up little variety.
But there has been an infrequent avian visitor to this sweep of beach in the past two days, though if we are to judge by today’s roll call, it was just a brief stopover or rest stop. I was brought to a sudden halt yesterday by the sight of an altogether unfamiliar bird hobnobbing with the gulls. Very shy, they quickly move away at the approach of people, uncomfortable even with a stationary figure hovering inside of twenty feet. The bird has a striking appearance, and looks like a prince beside the less colorful gulls. By the time my path turned for home I was curious about what the bird book would say about this new member of the local community.
With markings so pronounced, finding a picture was easy, and I learned it is a tern called a black skimmer. This name explains the bird’s unusual beak, describing how it feeds by skimming fish from the surface of the water. Sounds almost impossible, but the black skimmer skims the water’s surface with its mouth open and the lower half of its bill beneath the water level. When it makes contact with a fish the bill snaps shut and the bird takes off. The catch is consumed either in flight or once it has landed.
In appearance the tern has a large but narrow body and a long red bill with a black tip. The lower bill is longer, with a scoop-like shape. The top of the head and wings are black, with a white collar in winter; face and underparts are white. Legs and feet are red. The black skimmer is the only bird species in America that has a bill larger on the bottom than the top. At the time of hatching the upper and lower halves are equal in length, but at four weeks the bottom is nearly a centimeter longer than the top mandible.
The bird breeds along Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to Florida and Texas, and spends winters in a range from southern California to Virginia, and also central and South America. Despite photos and descriptions of the black skimmer in Florida, yesterday was my first sighting of the bird on the central east coast of Florida, along which I walk each and every day. Odd, since this is not a bird one is likely to overlook. Interesting note about number: A group of skimmers is not a flock, but is instead referred to as either a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘embezzlement’ of birds.
As Wednesday was my first sighting of this splendid looking tern, it prompts me to think the fifteen or twenty I spotted were resting, but on their way to parts farther afield.