The Sandy Hook peninsula, located at the entrance to lower New York Bay, stretches out like a thin, crooked finger, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the bay, and pointing directly to New York City.
Near the hook's tip is a valuable stopping and feeding ground for migratory shorebirds. Along this curved sandy beach, migration was in full swing on the first Sunday after Labor Day.
Following a deluge of rain and twin tornados in Brooklyn and Queens the other day, the tempestuous weather seemed not to have upset the coastal wildlife too much.
In no more than an hour I counted about 60 Black Skimmers, a mixture of adults and juveniles, along with vast numbers of terns, sandpipers, and gulls. It was like a social gathering of skimmers and shorebirds. Everyone was located at or near the edge of the bay.
While some of the birds might have nested at Sandy Hook over the summer, many others were most likely migrants. Recently pushed south from Breezy Point or Jamaica Bay, and other northern beaches by the recent stormy weather.
No matter, they all seemed content and comfortable at the hook. Several skimmers were preening and cleaning their feathers, while some others were resting by stretching out their heads forward on the soft, sandy ground.
A number of other skimmers were just hanging out and chattering it up with a few new-found migrants like themselves.
Black Skimmers are unmistakable shorebirds. They are about the size of a crow, with black feathers above and white feathers below. But what really makes this bird unique is its peculiar, uneven red-black bill.
No other bird found along the Jersey Shore looks like a Black Skimmer. In fact, skimmers are the only birds in the world whose lower jaw is longer than its upper, about one-third as long. Their bill is large and strangely shaped, almost like a toucan.
All the same, it is this odd-looking bill that helps to give the bird its name. Skimmers forage for food by flying just above the water. It "skims" the water's surface with its long lower bill wide open. The lower bill is exceptionally adapted to catching small fish at the surface as it moves rapidly through the water. Once the bird feels it has a fish inside its mouth, the bill snaps shut and the skimmer swallows its fishy prey.
Black Skimmers are beautiful, distinctive shorebirds. A true natural gem of the coast. Sometimes it's hard to believe such a remarkable bird can exist so close to one of the most urban coastlines in the world.
Yet, skimmers seem to fit in perfectly well living near the hustle and bustle of the city. Perhaps because they are social birds. Skimmers know how to get along with others. They nest in groups during the summer, often with other coastal bird species such as Laughing Gulls and Common or Least Terns. During migration, skimmers will often take a break on a beach alongside various species of terns, sandpipers, and gulls. The birds love a good get-together.
The get-togethers in all probability are not for fun, but protection. There is safely in numbers. The more eyeballs looking for predators, the more likely that one bird will see and sound an alarm, allowing birds to fly away and escape. By having lots of birds on the lookout means other birds can focus on eating or resting.
Eventually, all good gatherings have to end. Black Skimmers are migratory species. From mid-August through October, Black Skimmers leave their breeding grounds around Lower New York Bay, including Breezy Point, Jamaica Bay, and Sandy Hook, to migrate slowly southward, and I do mean slowly. As long the food is still plentiful, juveniles and adults have sometimes been known to hang about along certain ocean beaches along the Jersey Shore well into the fall, occasionally as late as December.
Seeing so many Black Skimmers at Sandy Hook was certainly a pleasure. I remember growing up as a child of the Jersey Shore during the 70s and 80s, seeing a skimmer was an exceptional event. Only the most passionate birdwatchers got to see just one or two.
According to the National Audubon Society, the Black Skimmer population in America was declining in the 1970s due to the loss of their coastal breeding habitat, primarily from poorly planned development located near or right on the beach. Too many buildings, bulkheads, and boardwalks were gobbling up important nesting habitat for this beach nesting bird. Today, while population numbers are slightly up, the threat of habitat loss still exists. As a result the Black Skimmer is listed as an endangered species in New Jersey and a species of special concern in New York State.
Sandy Hook, located downstream from New York City is one of the few remaining places along the Jersey Shore that still functions naturally as a home for this unique shorebird with an uneven bill. Let's hope that the fall gathering of Black Skimmers continues and the social gathering gets much bigger in the near future.
For more information, pictures, videos, and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/