Skimmers at San Luis Pass

Skimmers at San Luis Pass

My fave photographer Bill Maroldo and I went out looking for birds on Easter Sunday. All the venues were crowded with picnickers and holiday cook-offs. Did you know this is the busiest day of all at Brazos Bend State Park? We started out at Surfside, then Bryan Beach, and then on to Quintana with no real luck for birds.

Finally,  San Luis Pass was a winner.

 

We spent a nice afternoon watching and photographing the Black Skimmers. Do you remember when I went to the Dow Chemical Black Skimmer Open House last year? Those were nesting Skimmers and with even some chicks, but at San Luis Pass the Skimmers were bathing and flapping and ... skimming. 

Like this:

Young Black Skimmer at San Luis Pass... skimming. Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/2000 sec ISO 640; handheld

Young Black Skimmer at San Luis Pass... skimming.

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/2000 sec ISO 640; handheld

Catching these guys skimming is hard, ya'll. I have so many near misses; it takes a lot of practice to get them in the frame and in focus. The trajectory is so predictable you would think it would be easy. I seem to get them in focus after they pass by and then they are facing away.

Practice. More practice. Always more practice.

Black Skimmer doing the splish-splash Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 640

Black Skimmer doing the splish-splash

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 640

In between following the skimming Skimmers, I watched them bathe. It was fairly bright but the sun was behind us, so a fast shutter speed was possible. 

This guy was splashing around in the shallow waters right in front of me. I was set up with my tripod and crate. Look at that mandible; the lower one is longer than the top and they use it to slice through the water and pick up small prey. 

Black Skimmer with attention to detail... Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Black Skimmer with attention to detail...

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

After getting wet, he worked on the under feathers, one wing at a time. 

Black Skimmer has a wing span of about 4 feet. Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Black Skimmer has a wing span of about 4 feet.

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Then he walked up on the shore and started flapping those huge wings. Wikipedia notes the wing span is 42-50 inches (107-127cm). 

Black Skimmer showing you his knife-edge bill and up raised wings. Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Black Skimmer showing you his knife-edge bill and up raised wings.

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

He (or she, they look the same) raised his wings straight up and....

Black Skimmer almost airborne... Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Black Skimmer almost airborne...

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1000

... flapped so hard his feet would come off the ground!

Black Skimmer off the ground! Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Black Skimmer off the ground!

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Once I noticed this, I started trying to anticipate the lift-off. And not clip the wings as it happened. It was hard to isolate the birds for a nice background as they all wanted to bathe at the same time.

And the Laughing Gulls wanted to watch. 

Black Skimmer still drying those huge wings Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Black Skimmer still drying those huge wings

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/6.3  1/2000 sec ISO 1250

While they are flapping their wings dry, there is a rotation as well. Then they settle down to a bit more preening. One of the birds I saw was banded; I sent a photo off to several banding groups for their database, but they don't report the kind of band I saw or not enough info. This was my first time to see a banded Skimmer although I see banded American Oystercatchers at Texas City Dike often. 

Clean and dry Black Skimmer advertising his status to all Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6  1/1600 sec ISO 400

Clean and dry Black Skimmer advertising his status to all

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6  1/1600 sec ISO 400

While watching the Skimmers I thought about San Luis Pass. It is famous for treacherous currents and is often in the news for drownings. It is the body of water that separates Galveston Island from the Brazoria Peninsula; both are part of our barriers to the Gulf of Mexico.

Once I got home and did some research, the land where we were used to be a real island but then the "Little Pass" sanded up and put an end to that. There was a town called San Luis that had great expectations in the 1830s. The pass was 18 feet deep and could accommodate large sailing ships. True to Texas roots, developers moved in and sold lots; soon there were at least 40 houses, some hotels and general stores. A ferry operated to the Galveston side and the population reached 2000. Cotton from the plantations along the Brazos River was exported along a 1000 ft wharf to sailing ships from all over the world. 

A decade later the harbor had filled up, and the Republic of Texas was in a financial depression. People began to leave and a hurricane in 1853 wiped the beach clean. That is a typical boom-and-bust story for Texas.

Now, there is a small beach community, a huge bridge to the Galveston side and great fishing I hear. And a lot of neat birds. 

Have you been to San Luis Pass? Did you know it cost $2 in cash to transit the bridge? And that Hurricane Ike wiped out the road from Surfside up to the San Luis Pass bridge? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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