Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pool Skimmers

A few of weeks ago Pops and I drove out to an infamous, festering hole of satan sweat in southeastern California also know as the Salton Sea. It was a great trip jam-packed with new and interesting smells as well as sunburn and, oh yes, some fabulous birding. We saw several new species throughout the day, and among the most impressive and memorable of our sightings was a colony of Black Skimmers at the Wister Waterfowl Management Area. The Wister area was our first birding hotspot of the morning. We saw close to forty species just in that locality, and it was the Skimmers that really got things started in grand style.


As we later found out from a ranger, several hundred Black Skimmers had been using the sandbar islands as a breeding around for the last few years. In doing some research for the trip (like any good bird nerd), I had not read about this breeding colony, so it was with great surprise and enjoyment that we heard about this curious colony of coastal birds who had set up shop some two and a half hours from the Pacific shores. 


While not quite as adept in the air as Terns, Skimmers are still excellent aviators, and they were much more comfortable in the air than walking or standing on their narrow islands with those highly specialized and highly cumbersome mandibles. 


Sporting black backs and solid white bellies, these birds are some of the most formally dressed fisherman one will see around the Salton Sea. Despite their pomp and circumstance, getting close and observing these birds was not without difficulties. Pops and I arrived in the Salton Sea area on September 1st, the first day of dove hinting season. While we walked and drove around the Wister riparian area, the surrounding scrub continually echoed with errant shotgun blasts and bustled with potbellied men in camouflage constantly relocating with their camping stools. Being the only birders in the area and having a desire to get closer to our quarry, we had to keep our heads low as we drove along the Wister dikes, parallel to the Skimmer islands.


The Skimmers were not bothered by the proximal hunters, and the hunters for their part did stay in the shrub and away from the waterfowl. Pops and I sat in the car along the Wister dikes while the curious Skimmers flew around us, squawking to each other and trying to decide when it'd be best to fly down south like their recently departed neighbors, the Gull-billed Terns.


Pops and I had eaten our pre-birding sandwiches on the way over, but some of the Skimmers still had to catch their Saturday brunch. This was awesome. They skimmed the pools with such casualness and comfort. Seldom in the animal kingdom does such a dexterous form of feeding look like such a leisurely enterprise. The Skimmers turned fishing into an art. With hundreds of these birds swooping and skimming around us, it was truly a sight to behold. 

Although they were by far the most common, the Skimmers were not the only birds in the sky above the Wister area, and for that matter they were not the most boisterous either. Caspian Terns maintained a constant ruckus as they flew in between the Wister ponds and the Salton seashore to the southeast.


The Caspian Terns were joined by Ring-billed Gulls and a few other miscellaneous Terns. While on the look-out for any late Gull-billed, we also saw Forster's and a couple Black Terns (I believe that's what's pictured below). We hadn't even arrived at the Salton Sea proper yet, but already it was turning into a great day at the beach.


18 comments:

  1. I need to get over there one of these days. Skimmers are the coolest. Sweet new header and skimming shots.

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    1. Thanks Jeremy! I agree. It's definitely a good one to visit with company too. Let me know if your usual crew is not up to the Sea and I'll meet ya there. I still have to get the Clapper Rails and Gull-billed Terns : )

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  2. Skimmers are such cool birds, and watching them skim never gets old:) Glad you and Pops had such a great experience (minus the hunters) watching these unique birds!

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    1. Thanks Tammy. Once again, I'm starting to find my little bits of Florida here in the southwest : )

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  3. I've just learned something new today:) Really? The Salton Sea? When did they make this place:)? Really really exciting finds Laurence. So glad you got a chance to go and do some exploring. I love your pics. This is intriguing. I can only the heat though. Do you know that today was the first day that I put on my camera vest? It was actually cool out!!! SO glad fall is here. Tomorrow Kathie and I head out to Cienagas for some birding....plus I hope to get some pronghorn:) You are lucky to have your Dad at your side. I usually am by myself. Last week was my first outing with another birder and it was so much fun. So tomorrow it's early early up. I can't wait to see what we'll find. I've never been there before. Hope you're having a good weekend and doing some fun things. Chris

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    1. Yes, the weather is finally bending to your will Chris!
      I think the Salton Sea was created in part by some accidental canal construction involving parts of the COlorado and Alamo rivers in the early 1900s. The river swelled their banks and flooded the low area (current sea) which is also over the San Andreas fault.

      Birding with company is my favorite as well. Going solo is still great and worthwhile, but I usually see more birds if I'm with a buddy and all the in-between time is better too. I hope things go well for y'all at Cienegas.

      Since the Salton Sea, I haven't been able to do lots of expanded birding on the weekends, just too much going on in Phoenix with work and other things, but I'm hoping to get to Mt. Ord in the next few weeks, and Mt, Lemmon is on my list too this autumn.

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  4. Skimmers are so awesome, I am mad impressed with these shots. Dove hunting season? Ew.

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    1. Thanks Jen. I was mad impressed with the SKimmers so it looks like we've got some transitive property of math going on here! (or distributive? Anyway, no idea why that came to mind). Hope you found some sweet stuff this weekend.

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  5. AWEsome Skimmer shots! I especially love your header shot. The Black Skimmers are cool birds. I am sad to see the hunting season starting. Amazing photos and a great post!

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    1. Thinks Eileen, glad you skimmed em' : )

      Hunting season made things kinda bitter sweet, but there are a lot, lot, lot of doves out there, and lots of what they were hunting were Eurasian Collareds, so I guess it could be worse.

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  6. Laurence, you have already inspired a cadre of birders to want to visit the Salton Sea. This will only add fuel to the fire! Great shots! What an adventure! Oh, and thanks for the info on the white-eyed vireo! I updated my blog and gave you credit and put in a link to your blog!

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    1. Thanks Kathie : )

      It's my pleasure to help with the Vireo too; I'm glad I knew a tricky bird for once!

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  7. Wonderful story and images Laurence, glad you and your Pops had a great time!

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    1. Thanks Mia. I'd been really aching to see Skimmers, spurred on by your wonderful photos.

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  8. Awwwwwesome capture. The pics of birds fishing are always so great.

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    1. Thanks Moe, and these birds fish like no other!

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