Went to Cape May this morning for my weekly volunteer time at the Bird Observatory, and hoped to see some birds in the area beforehand. For the third week in a row, though, I was just on the wrong side of a cold front. This time I missed it by only a few hours, it’s coming through this afternoon. Very few migrating birds around this morning at Higbee Beach, though I did see one Northern Waterthrush, a few Brown Thrashers, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk looking to make breakfast of some Northern Flickers (unsuccessfully, at least while I saw him).
There’s always something birdy to see in Cape May, though, so I went to the town beach where Black Skimmers always congregate this time of year in preparation for their southward journey. Above is one group in the air, one on the ground. I saw about a hundred of them in several groups along the beach today.
Black Skimmers are colony birds, they nest in groups, and often perch and fly in groups as well, utilizing the survival strategy of “safety in numbers.” There’s at least one nesting colony about five miles north of Cape May, on Champagne Island, where these ground-nesters and their chicks are safe from predators like foxes, but still in danger from large gulls and hawks, and often disturbed by people who like the same little island. The nesting colony itself is roped off and protected, but the people who go out there in boats are still a problem, especially if they bring their dogs.
These birds have a unique bill shape: the upper bill is much shorter than the lower one, and for a good reason. As their name impies, they feed by extending that long lower bill into the water and skimming along the surface. When the very sensitive lower bill contacts a fish, it snaps shut. Skimmers in flight are quite beautiful. A still photo doesn’t really capture it, but here’s a pretty nice one by photographer Michael Hogan:
In the summer it’s easy to see them doing this quite close to shore along the back edge of Stone Harbor Point, not far from their nesting colony. Ellen and I always enjoy seeing them. Right now their numbers will continue to grow on the beach in Cape May, until one day, probably some time in late October, the weather will convince them to head further south. I’m not sure what they talk about at these conventions, but they do seem to have a good time.