Editor’s note: Sorry for neglecting Nature Calendar a bit this week. My grandmother died on Saturday so I was shuttling back and forth for the wake and funeral, while also trying to find ways to financially support myself. And now back to what’s up in our urban wilderness community!
by Erik Baard
It was after ten o’clock and we were standing on a small pier on duckweed-covered Turtle Pond in Central Park. Brad Klein of the New York Bat Group held his echolocation detector and patiently peered out, from water to full moon-brightened sky. Not a bat blip was heard, but a graceful visitor descended upon the stillness.
“Could you hold the bat detector, please?,” he asked urgently, and suddenly I felt like Robin, wondering what else Klein had in his bat utility belt. Out came a powerful, focusable flashlight. In moments Klein was expertly spotlighting a bird with a black back and white underside and long, pointed wings that beat slowly as it flew inches over the water. It briefly scaled the darkness only to swoop down again to trace another edge of the pond.
A black skimmer. I recognized this novelty of the inland Manhattan night only because I’d been introduced to the estuary and ocean species earlier in the evening through legendary urban naturalist Marie Winn’s slide show and lecture. She was at the American Museum of Natural History to share findings garnered through researching her new book, Central Park in the Dark.
On another night, Tom McIntyre of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York City, snapped the shot of the black skimmer above at the Conservatory Water.
Klein was deployed to the park as part of the AMNH event, which included astronomers and moth enthusiasts. Though he’s an avowed bat guy, and will co-lead AMNH “bat walks” on July 18 and 25, there was no disguising his thrill at the sighting. Black skimmers aren’t extraordinarily rare, and populations have stabilized over the past three decades. But they are exceptional. Among American birds, only this gull and tern cousin has an asymmetrical beak, which Cornell University’s bird page describes as “knife thin.” The lower half is flexible and sensitive, and drags just below the water’s surface until it bumps into a crustacean or fish and the red and black beak snaps shut. It’s aerial fishing by brail. Their brown eyes are equally unusual: they have vertical slit pupils, like a cat.
Below is another shot, by Cal Vornberger, of a skimmer slicing the water off Long Island at dawn.
“What’s kind of weird is that these birds live in the Rockaways, so I wonder how he found this place. I hope he’s getting enough fish to make the trip worthwhile,” Klein said. “Sometimes they’ll nest on a flat roof though, so maybe he’s got a home on top of one of the buildings nearby.”
Now I was in on the mystery as well as the beauty. It’s funny how one casual comment can deepen a natural experience that way. My head was filled with images of this creature wingedly loping its way above the pizza parlors of Bay Ridge and over the harbor’s booze cruises, the tall ships of South Street Seaport and the last shoppers at Bloomingdales, to arrive at this humble pond. And then I pondered the possibility that this lonely night stalker was an unsung neighbor of Pale Male, the famed subject of Winn’s earlier book, Red-tails in Love.
The romantic solitude of this nocturnal visitor to our most celebrated park struck me more profoundly when I read up on the species. They are known for being gregarious, and hunting in large groups. Do others in the Rockaways take notice when this one nightly veers away from them? Are there blotchy eggs in the shadow of a roof’s lip, or chicks below a ventilating fan, as a substitute for the shadowed sandy “scrape” depressions where they shelter?
Birders report seeing more two skimmers at once in Central Park, so perhaps we’re witnessing the start of a new colony. Or perhaps, come winter, Central Park’s rare black skimmers will reunite with their kind in the other end of their migratory habitat, the Caribbean, never to part again?