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Black Skimmers: the Groucho Marx of Beach birds

July 15, 2015
By Bill Veach , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

I saw Groucho Marx on the beach the other day. Well, not the Groucho Marx, it was more of a flying super hero version of Groucho Marx. He was wearing a kind of black cape and mask and was trying to rescue fish from drowning. OK, maybe it was trying to eat the fish, and maybe it was a bird. So I Googled "Groucho Marx Cape Crusader Sea Bird" and was redirected to the referral section on the American Psychiatric Association website. After some more searching, and some overdue therapy, I found the Black Skimmer. Seriously, I have seen Black Skimmers before loafing on the beach with some Royal Terns and those huge, awkward looking beaks. I have also seen them swimming off shore in tight groups, too far and too fast to get a good look at them skimming.

Different seabirds have different ways to catch the fish they crave. The precise Tern dives in to pick up that single fish from under the water. The lanky Pelican throw themselves into the water like a casting net, and usually seems to catch something. Cormorants just swim around, thinking and acting like a fish to catch a fish. Mighty Ospreys slash into the water with razor sharp talons spearing dinner. Egrets and Herons spear fish out of the shallows with their long beak and neck.

Then there are the Black Skimmers. They are like a kind of flying mousetrap. At first glance they look like an odd gull, a gull with a huge beak. The beak looks huge from the side, and paper thin from the front. Their mandible is black at the tip and turns to red as it approaches their body. And their behavior is is more like Tern than a Gull. Maybe that's why they like loafing on the beach with large, punky Royal Terns. But, there comes a time when they feel the need to stop loafing on the beach and start raising a family. Black Skimmers are loyal mates, they both help feed and mind the chicks. At hatching, the chick's two long mandibles are the same length, a long protruding lower mandible would make it difficult to pick up food dropped in the sand by their parents. Kind of like eating sushi with one chopstick. As they mature, the lower mandible just keeps growing until it protrudes well out from the upper mandible.

The Skimmer baby boom is spreading across the sprawling open beach on the southern part of our Island and they have been a more common sight on our beach the last couple of years. It has been decades since the Black Skimmers have been nesting on Fort Myers Beach. Twenty six nests last year and over fifty this year. Their preference for nesting on open sandy beaches has them sharing that spectacle of nature that we have on the south part of the island. The Estero Island Serengeti.

Since they now have families to feed, they are out hunting for baby Skimmer chow, and it is in the feeding that Skimmers show their elegant uniqueness. They prefer to fish in still waters, but can be regularly seen in the swash of the beach, hovering over the waves until the break gives them some smooth water. Then they lower their head, drop that long lower mandible and wait for a fish. What a precise action, getting just the right speed and timing so they can cruise over the surface, keeping their mandible in the water but off of the sandy bottom. Their knife like lower mandible that cuts thought the water and eyes with narrow slits that helps reduce glare. It's like they were made for this. When their mandible detects a small fish near the surface or a small crustacean in the shallows, they snap their top mandible down and wham, sushi dinner.

Look for the Black Skimmers fishing near the beach at dusk or dawn. Their fishing technique doesn't require them to actually see their prey, they can rely on touch and feed late into the evening. You can also see them nesting on the southern part of the island (from a safe distance of course), or just loafing on the beach. Just look for the bird that looks a bit like Groucho Marx, superhero.

Bill Veach is chairman of the Town of Fort Myers Beach Marine Resources Task Force.



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