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.