By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
On a beautiful Sunday morning, Vlad went out to photograph chicks on the beach.
No… it’s not what you’re thinking!
We were staying at the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, Florida, where my company had just finished its annual conference. We tacked on a few days of vacation at the end.
And on the last day we heard about something unusual: a patch of beach where black skimmers (a kind of tern) were hatching their chicks. It was about a half-mile or so up the beach to the north, sandwiched right between hotels, roped off but otherwise out in the open, among the sunbathers and beach joggers.
As we got close to the nesting area, we saw that a huge flock of the skimmers had made their way out of the roped-off area to the hard sand by the water’s edge. There, they stood in a cluster, chattering (their cry goes something like “ip-ip-ip”, or occasionally “eep-eep-eep”).
The black-and-white, orange-beaked adults appeared to be watching expectantly as the fuzzy gray hatchlings, and their older gray-and-white siblings, scampered back and forth.
I’m no biologist. I leave that to Vlad (but even he knows more about slugs and crabs than wild birds).
So I’m just guessing at this, but it appeared that the adults were attempting to teach the juveniles how to skim the water for food. Skimmers fly low over the water with open beaks, with the lower mandible—which, uniquely, is quite a bit longer than the upper one—submerged, catching fish and other tasty tidbits (hence the name).
At any rate, here’s what happened: Occasionally one of the younger birds would approach an adult and duck its head submissively. It looked for all the world like the younger bird was asking to be fed.
The adult ignored the request, instead looking towards the water impassively. Sometimes it would take a short demonstration flight over the waves, beak open, and then return. The younger bird would then hop towards the water, flap its wings, and open its beak. Even though it couldn’t fly yet, it seemed to be getting the idea: Water meant food, and skimming the waves was how to get the food.
We were fascinated.
I couldn’t believe such a phenomenon was happening right in front of us, with humans all around.
Strangely, most of the other humans on the beach seemed oblivious. One woman let her small boy chase the birds, alarming the adults, who took off in the air to circle protectively around the flightless juveniles, who scampered and “eeped”, trying to avoid being stepped on.
And several adult runners ran straight through the flock. I don’t think any of them even noticed that only some of the birds were able to fly off.
Fortunately, the birds seemed to survive the interruptions unharmed. Apparently they’ve reached a reasonable level of comfort interacting with humans—we don’t hurt them, and they ignore us, except when we get very close.
That’s a phenomenon we’ve noticed over and over again in the Tampa-St.Pete area: The wildlife seems to adapt remarkably to the presence of humans. (A native Floridian later pointed out that one reason may be the plethora of parkland in the area, which is an intentional feature. Various housing regulations dictate that houses be no more than a few blocks from parks, which means both that there is plenty of wildlife habitat, and that the wildlife is in close proximity to humans.)
At any rate, the skimmers seemed more-or-less unperturbed by the presence of dozens of bathing-suit-clad sun-worshippers, even when they accidentally disturbed the flock. And after we’d watched at the water’s edge for a while, we headed to the roped-off area where the nests and new hatchlings were.
There, the sand was peppered with adult skimmers, who appeared to be nest-sitting. Occasionally a small gray head would pop out of the sand, and a tiny voice would pipe “eep-eeep-eep”. One pair of chicks was nestled in a patch of seaweed at the base of one of the signs.
After an hour or so watching, I had to head back to the hotel for an appointment. But Vlad stayed on to take more photos of chicks (and their parents) on the beach.
Here are his photos from the day (click on any photo to start slideshow):