Skimming the Surface: A Birding Moment in Florida

Photo: Terry Foote, via Wikipedia Commons

Many a youthful birder type, whatever his or her intensity, has grandparents in Florida to thank for that interest—that’s my case, at least. This weekend, I was on the beach again in Naples, Florida, which I’ve visited since I was a boy. It was a breezy, overcast afternoon at Clam Pass on the Gulf. Gangly brown pelicans were im-plodding in the surf, and terns were terning overhead, sharply. Then a flock of maybe 50 or 60 black skimmers drifted down the stiff beach air on their long pointed wings, dark on top, white below. They would be so noble, so dapper, if not for their red-ringed, elephantine bills, which, to anthropomorphize some more, are at the crux of awkward and wondrous. The skimmers settled on a spit, or sandbar, that had slowly emerged as the tide withdrew. Why? No hyper-tanned joggers or maniacal shell-gleaners would bother them. None right of mind.

Having just returned from a jog (and earlier hunted for shells), I waded into the warm ocean to cool off. The descent was shallow, so I walked a good distance on the soft bottom, through the short, quick waves, to get up to my chin. Several terns rattled close overhead, and that’s when it occurred to me: Perhaps I could meet the skimmers head first, face-to-face, taking them on at their own game.

I crept slowly through the surf parallel to the beach, until I was directly offshore from the skimmers on their solitary sandbar, 150 feet away. Lining myself up, I pushed off quietly, coasting in with the waves, bodysurfing, skimming my way to the skimmers, as sleek and beady-eyed as they. As I neared, I gazed at their uniform forward stares and proboscidean bills. If you’ve ever taken a long look at a skimmer, then you know its lower mandible is much longer than its upper. They have a serious and useful under bite. This long jaw they slice lightly through the water, and when they feel a fish, they dip their head, clamp their bill, snatch it up, and swallow.

Before long, I hit the lower mandible of the beach and lay floundering in the shallows, grating my stomach across the scratchy sand and rough cockle and conch fragments—skimming no more. Still, I crawled forward, like a commando, but since I happen to have long hair right now (I casually subscribe to a once-a-year haircut rule), my mane splashed forward over my forehead with the waves, making me look like “a swamp thing,” as my companion later put it (sea creature would have been more ecologically correct).

I think that really scared them. For when I was just 10 feet away from the flock, it lifted. Fifty birds hovered for a moment only a few feet above me in the wind, and I rolled onto my back in the froth to see their white bellies, mine to theirs. Had I been an athlete, not a swamped thing, I could have sprung up and caught one in my hands. It was like I was among them, in the air, for a wingbeat. But really I was more like a pufferfish rolled up on the sand, and when they left, I continued rolling in the direction of the few still sitting on the sandbar. That compelled them to leave, as well.

Sometimes birding isn't quite visceral enough. It can be so much from behind glass, even if it is the intensifying powers of binoculars. So I try to take opportunities to commune with birds in the raw as they come. Wearing a suit, of course. When I stood up, no longer a sea creature, I had only a few welts below my ribs.