Early Morning at Nickerson Beach

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Adult Black Skimmer in flight. © S.G. Hansen

SMRA had a trip to Long Island. I was excited that there were only three of us: I; Anne Swaim, the trip leader; and Debbie, who had moved from South Africa to Westchester this past winter. I’d been anticipating birding for shorebirds at the beach since the songbird summer doldrums began. Debbie was ready to grab many lifers. Her U.S. list lacked shorebirds.

Our first stop was Nickerson Beach at Lookout Point. I could hear the Common Terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers from the parking lot. At 6AM, the temperature already reached the 80s. The air felt humid. Even when we reached the shore, there wasn’t much of a breeze. Unsurprisingly, a few beachgoers had already arrived. Surprisingly, so had a couple dozen photographers, taking pictures of the shorebirds and terns.

There were a limited number of species, but the numbers were high. (Anne x’d almost half of the species on the eBird checklist.) In addition to Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Common Terns, an OK variety of gulls: Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Laughing Gulls. I turned to every call I heard, every bird I saw flying overhead.

I settled on a small group of skimmers resting on the sand near the protected dunes. They preened, lay flat on their bellies, or simply stood. Several photographers crouched nearby, a couple rather close to them, perhaps less than fifteen feet away. Many of the skimmers took no notice. Two or three harassed the nearest photographers, circling around, crying, feinting collisions. Just when one would think the skimmers would hit the photographers, they sharply veered away. The photographers, too deeply focused, kept peering through their lenses.


This photographer did get distracted. © S.G. Hansen


We immediately found what Anne came here to see. Beyond the line protecting the dunes were unseen countless skimmers, terns, and oystercatchers. And their babies. “Little fuzzies,” as Anne put it. Not even fifteen minutes after the trip officially began, my day was made. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning was more than worth it. I was giddier than Anne. And I may have gone overboard in expressing my enthusiasm for the cuteness.

Many of the babies must have stayed by the nests, hidden in the dune grasses. A few were out in the open, including a baby skimmer under its parent’s belly. Baby terns – if not trailing their parents for food – ambled around aimlessly, conscious of their surroundings, but not knowing what to do with themselves.

Two juvenile terns had a tug-o’- war over a fish tightly seized in their beaks. Their wings overlapped each other’s bodies in such a way that they looked like two drunken human friends shambling away from a bar. A curious baby tern watched and followed them around. I thought their parents would show up to break them up. The juveniles remained locked.

As much as I wanted to see who would win, I moved on and caught up with Anne and Debbie. Among the skimmers and terns was an oystercatcher family. They stayed just behind protection rope. The babies had the basic pattern of adult plumage, and already their legs and beaks were already long-ish and their heads nearly black. They climbed on a flat rock. A parent began walking towards the ocean. One of the two babies followed. It suddenly turned its attention elsewhere and fell behind. The parent stopped, repeatedly calling for it to keep following. (I don’t think I ever saw the parent blink during this half-minute. It was an odd sight, this red eye, surrounded by bright orange skin, constantly open.)

When the parent reached the sand freshly grazed by the waves, and plucked from the sand a tiny shell . The baby scurried to pick the shell from its parent’s bill. As the parent gradually moved down with the shoreline, the baby tentatively trailed. After a few more feedings, the parent thought its offspring might take a small step towards independence. Rather than passing food bill to bill, it dropped the shell. The baby ran up to pluck it from the sand. And so the routine went thereafter.


Food time, starring American Oystercatchers. © S.G. Hansen

When they drew closer to us, we moved on so our presence wouldn’t interfere with them.

We stopped to observe a flock of thirty Sanderlings, our first peeps of the day and another lifer for Debbie. The Sanderlings didn’t sprint back and forth with the waves. Instead, they fed ten feet or so from the shoreline. Previously, I had only ever seen them in their winter plumage. We took the time to study their breeding plumage, noting the rufous coloring on their heads and backs.

After a few more minutes, we decided to turn back and visit our next location. On our way back to the parking lot, we came up to the same skimmer group, now smaller and farther from the dunes. No more photographers.

We spied two babies. There was a chance of observing them being fed as we did with the
oystercatchers. We waited a bit. Anne attached her iPhone to her scope to take a video. Eventually, one of babies began following an adult walking around. The adult ignored it. The baby gave up soon after. It disappeared in a shallow depression in the sand. (Just as well since Anne never pressed play.) It may have gone after the wrong adult, or tried to follow hoping to receive food regardless.

We tried to keep our distance from the skimmers as we passed by, but a couple adults thought we weren’t far away enough. They harassed us as they did with the photographers earlier. I knew they wouldn’t actually peck at or hit me, as gulls notoriously would. Still, the feinting coupled with their yelping began to faze me and I cowered behind Debbie.

After an hour and three-quarters of baby shorebirds and terns, it was time to find the peeps.



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