Black Skimmers

Our guest blogger this week is Denise Ippolito.


Every year during the late spring and summer I spend a lot of my time photographing Black Skimmers on Long Island NY.  The skimmers nest right along side of Common Terns, Piping Plovers, Least Terns and American Oystercatchers though the Least Terns keep more to themselves than the other species.  Both the Common and Least Terns will aggressively dive bomb people who get too close to the colony. This gives folks the impression that the terns are the only aggressive birds in the colony. However as you observe the colony over time you will discover that as the adult skimmers bring fish to their chicks they will boldly attack any birds that gets too close to them including other adult skimmers. These attacks can be very brutal, and sometimes result in injuries. Adult Black Skimmers will also attack and kill young skimmer chicks that make the mistake of venturing away from their own nest site. I once saw a tiny skimmer chick wander into a nearby nest site; it was viciously attacked over and over again.  It eventually found a small patch of vegetation to hide in but later on in the morning I saw it lying dead next to its hiding place. It can be sad for some to watch as nature does its thing.  You cannot enter the colony and even if you could it would be wrong to interfere no matter how much your heart wants to. Only the fittest survive.

I love to walk out to the beach in the early morning. I can hear the skimmers barking calls up and down the shoreline. They are busy feeding and flying back and forth from one colony to the other; we often joke that they are feeding their mistresses at the other colony. The bills of Black Skimmers are large and thin from side to side. They are reddish orange at the base and black towards the tip.  The lower mandible is longer than the upper mandible. The mandibles of the juvenile skimmers are of equal length until they fledge.  At this time the lower mandible continues to grow. While flying the skimmer places the bottom mandible into the water to catch small fish.  After heavy rains in late summer the fledged juvenile skimmers will practice their skimming techniques in the large puddles that have formed.  Still mornings can offer great opportunities for capturing images of these beautiful birds in flight skimming on the calm water.  Winds with southerly or easterly components are best as the birds will be flying towards you. Sometimes the young skimmers will practice skimming the sand with their lower mandibles just touch the surface.

When you photograph these birds in flight it is very easy to clip their wings when trying to fill the frame. Black Skimmers can have a wingspan of four feet. If you are set up with a long lens on a tripod you loosen your tripod collar and go for vertical captures. Similarly, when you are faced with wind against sun conditions and the birds are landing with their rears towards you it is a good idea to watch for them banking before landing and try to capture vertical originals of them in banking poses.

At the end of the nesting season when the flock leaves for winter it can be tough to watch the young skimmers that are unable to make the flight become easy pickings for the voracious Great Black-backed Gulls that patrol the shoreline looking for their next meal.  It is a good time to revisit your images and remember the great times that you had capturing images that depict the miracle of skimmer courtship, egg-laying, hatching, growth, and development.

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