Author’s Note: “When our children were young, we would spend our summers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore — a much different world from our suburban Delaware existence. Of course, children grow up and away. That is the plan. Writing about this magical time together helps me feel closer to these far-away adults and reminds me to be grateful. Grateful for past adventures and future possibilities.”
Skimmers: A Love Story in Three Parts
WE FIRST MET THESE BIRDS at the end of a hot summer day. Coastal Virginia hot, when it feels like you’re breathing through and wearing a wet wool blanket. We’ve been outside for most of the day. Laughing. Swimming. Fishing. A little sunburnt. Sure, we used sunscreen, but how can you protect so many freckles? Have we had dinner? I hope so, because salt and crumbs are the sole survivors in our Ziploc snack bags. We are quieter now, moving toward stillness and the evening. We take longer breaths.
The sun is low and dipping behind the water. That time of day when sunglasses make the world a little too dark, yet without them, we all squint. Look at these colors. Everything washed with a pearl finish. Pearly green water meets pearly blue sky. A thin, nearly invisible line marks the horizon between the two.
The birds are busy. Ospreys high and terns lower, both diving for supper. The noisy gulls provide our summer soundtrack. We sort of miss them when they are silent. Sort of.
Then we see them. Something different. Steady horizontal flight. Black backs on a white body contrast with this pearly scene. Flying so close to the water their bill drags through it. Rhythmic. Focused. Truly skimming this thin line between sky and bay. And that crazy bill. Red with black. They turn together, ignoring the people, the boats, the gulls. Skimming the surface, riding the in-between. One two three four strokes and turn. One two three birds.
We inhale. We stare. We hold our breath.
I look at our son and daughter. The dusk glow gives them rosy halos. They are following the flight, and I am following them.
We exhale, widen our eyes, raise our eyebrows, and look at each other. We remain quiet, our expressions asking the questions—Did you see what I just saw? Did you see those birds?
We are smitten with these creatures.
Related to gulls and terns, black skimmers (Rynchops niger) are found exclusively in the Americas and nest on Virginia’s sandy shoreline.
Resting on the shore, their size (medium) and coloration (black and white) combine to blend them into the shorebird background scenery. They might be easy to miss. Look a little closer, though, and the bill emerges as a differentiating feature. Awkward. Heavy. This is definitely not a gull. (The genus name, Rynchops, is derived from ancient Greek for bill and face.) With a pair of binoculars, you may get a good look at the eyes. Large pupils help maneuver during low light. Keep the binoculars steady, and if you’re lucky, you might see the eyes close vertically to slits to protect from the harsh sun. They are ready for whatever light they encounter.
Once on the move, no binoculars are needed to witness awkward anatomy morph into graceful flight. The skimmer’s strong wings are set high on the body. Long upstrokes and short downstrokes keep the bird merely inches from the water. Now we begin to understand that bill. A skimmer flies so close to the water that its larger lower mandible drags the surface. Once the skimmer feels a fish, the upper mandible clamps shut. Small groups of skimmers will often fly in lines, turning in unison, back and forth over the same area. Many scientists believe that this rhythmic patterning actually lures in fish. Skimmers are considered crepuscular, meaning they are most active at twilight. Bright light isn’t needed for their technique, and evening fishing usually promises calmer water and more surface prey. Fishing by feel. A uniquely skimmer approach. No other birds behave in this way.
The urge to dive must be strong. I respect the courage of the tern and the power of the osprey. They need to know exactly where to go and then commit to it with their full body. The skimmer, however, seems more accepting of the present moment, more likely to say—Let’s enjoy the water. The air. The in- between. Let’s just see what will happen.
ASSATEAGUE. WALLOPS. ASSAWOMAN. Metompkin. Cedar. Parramore. Hog. Cobb. Wreck. Shipshoal. Myrtle. Smith. Fisherman.
These islands form a seventy-mile outer barrier along Virginia’s Eastern Shore from the Maryland-Virginia line south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. South of Wallops, there is no road access; boat travel is the only way to visit. The islands are harsh natural environments. Homes and other structures that were built by hopeful settlers have long ago succumbed to wind and waves. The narrow sandy stretches earn their “barrier” title by absorbing storm waves and tides, protecting the marshes and mainland behind them.
These islands and their accompanying bays became our family’s summer escape—our wildness, our adventure.
During the school year, we lived in suburban Delaware— famous for tax-free shopping and now Joe Biden. Good schools and generous employers made it a wise choice, a safe choice for our family—albeit a little stiff, a little stale.
Summers always offer an awakening, a welcome respite from routine. Wherever it happens. However, the time is spent. Summer takes the lid off most pots, relieving some built-up pressure and hopefully stirring some stuck routines. Our summers did that and more as we headed south for a season of adventure and possibilities on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
True, there is nothing on television. Grouchy reception allows us one or two stations at best, and only if it isn’t windy. And yes, school friends are four hours away. Soon enough, that will matter. But not yet, not now. We had all we needed and wanted—books and boats and time. Time to stay up late, and time to sleep in. Time to explore, to get muddy and messy.
Sometime before our two beautiful children grew into adults that moved away, before they became teenagers that pushed away, lived the sweet spot of Shell Beach.
Who wants to go to Shell Beach today? While the short answer is always a quick “yes,” the longer response involves variations on the theme of “have you seen my stuff?” and “can you help me find it?” Hats, sunglasses, and sweatshirts enjoy their own summer adventure by hiding from us.
With more than three years and several inches in height over her brother, our daughter often assumes a natural leadership role and today helps him collect what is needed. I know we are almost ready when she asks, “Is it the last minute yet? I’m going to the bathroom at the last minute.”
Bags finally packed with towels, buckets, and extra clothes, we trailer our small gray skiff to Gargatha Landing, always with a stop for our traditional Fig Newtons.
The sun bakes the parking lot, and there are no trees to shade us. We are patient but uncomfortable as the ritual of launching the boat unfolds. Put the plug in. Undo the straps. Bags in the boat. Hand signals to back up the truck—not too much, a little more, a little more, you’re good now.
It’s low tide, so once in the boat, we are looking up at the tall green marsh grasses. Each time we launch, the creek looks a little different. Today, we are riding low on Gargatha Creek, taking the turns wide. As we pick up speed, the kids and I yell into the wind and try to match the engine’s noise. The boat bounces us, and anything not secured might fly away. Our daughter’s thick mane of red hair whips around her face. A gust snatches her hat, but she catches it just in time. Our son sees this and quickly removes his Michigan hat. “No way I’m losing this,” he mutters. It’s a beloved accessory, especially after weeks of folding the brim to create the perfect angled look.
We pull up on the creek side of the island, close to the inlet. Just a low stretch of sand here. One anchor in the sand and one in the water. We tease and tug and adjust until it is just right. Just enough slack. Just enough tension.
Metompkin Island will always be Shell Beach to us. On our first visit a few years back, we discovered it was impossible to walk there without stepping on seashells. Sometimes angel wings, sometimes sand dollars. Often jingle shells, limpets, moon snails, scallops, and slipper shells. And always whelk shells. So many whelks. Knobbed and channeled, from thumbnail to nearly forearm length, their colors all the more beautiful because they are muted. You have to look closely to appreciate the pale mauves and peaches swirled with creams and grays.
Our first few trips there, we wanted them all. We quickly filled buckets with whelk shells, emptied them into the boat, then filled again. It took a full summer of frenzied collection to exhaust the urge to own the beach. Now we limit ourselves to one or two perfect treasures each. Today’s contest has our son and daughter scouring the beach for both the smallest and the largest whelks they can find.
We leave our shoes and bags near the boat and begin to walk toward the inlet. Dad drops his fishing bucket in the sand and scouts a good place to cast. He tells us he’ll catch up with us later. The kids and I walk along the inlet and turn towards the ocean beach.
The Atlantic Flyway is an important north–south highway for migrating birds and it passes right over Virginia’s coast. The shape of the Delmarva peninsula, in general, and Virginia’s barrier islands, in particular, create a unique funneling section of the flyway. In the spring and fall, over one hundred thousand birds, from the largest hawks to the smallest songbirds, pass through for a quick rest-and-recovery feed stop.
But it is summer now, and migration is over. Local birds have settled in to court, mate, nest, and create families. Plovers like to nest on Shell Beach, along with oystercatchers, terns, knots, and, oh yes, our beloved skimmers. So many birds. Being such a critical nesting habitat, the dunes on Shell Beach are closed to foot traffic during nesting season. That’s no problem for us. We walk along the edge of the surf and keep our feet wet.
Our son is the first to hear a strange buzzing. “What’s that? Listen, guys.”
We pause our shell scavenging. Initially, the sound is faint, but with just a few steps toward drier sand, it quickly crescendos into a din. Mostly higher pitches, but with lots of different calls. Somewhere in that cacophony is a lower tone. Sounds like a hacking cough to me. Those must be our skimmers. Their strange barking cry has earned them the nickname “seadogs” in some regions.
We walk just a few steps toward this rowdy avian orchestra, being careful not to get close to any protected areas. We know better. We don’t want to disturb these shorebirds during their vulnerable nesting time.
And then, finally, we see them. So many birds. There must be hundreds of them. Most are standing sentry on sand. A few are taking short flight above the dunes. Even without binoculars, we can identify some of the larger species: laughing gulls, oystercatchers, and, oh yes, our beautiful black skimmers.
Skimmers seem to follow the “strength in numbers” motto. They nest in large social groups, often near tern colonies. Terns— island bullies who are small and yet quite aggressive—help protect their nesting neighbors from predators. And the bullies are here in force today. A handful quickly take flight together while we watch our skimmers. They separate from the mob of birds and fly a little closer to us.
These are least terns, identified by their compact size, yellow bill, black cap, and white forehead. They are hovering near us, almost hummingbird-like, watching us watch them.
They begin making a strange chirp-like noise, sounding like a frustrated teacher reprimanding the class with a tsk-tsk.
How cute, I mistakenly think.
Their reprimands quickly become louder, however, and the tsk-tsk chirping even more insistent, more annoyed. They move in and hover even closer to us.
I see my son’s worried face and my daughter’s raised eyebrows.
Before the kids even get a chance to ask, “Are we okay?” the terns begin to repeatedly dive-bomb the sand near us, and with each dive, they move in that much closer. The air around us swirls with buzzing and diving small bodies.
Reflex kicks in, and our bodies react.
“Aaaah!” we all scream, covering our heads with our hands and sprinting away from the tern attack. We run toward the inlet and don’t slow until we no longer hear the tsk-tsk reprimands. By the time we stop, we’re winded from running and laughing. The terns are nowhere in sight. We feel equally triumphant, silly, and safe.
The children’s patience for birding, however, is now understandably gone. It’s hard to follow up the tern debacle with simply standing still and watching skimmers from a distance.
It’s a short walk to Dad and his fishing gear. The kids move on, but I remain. They are drawn to flight, and I am drawn to the nest.
I wait, and I watch. Once the terns settle down again, I can get a better look at the adult skimmers. They seem to be standing, guarding their nests, but even with binoculars, I can’t see much detail. Skimmer eggs and nests are nearly impossible to spot. Look for them, and you won’t find any traditional nests here made of twigs, protected high in a tree. On barrier islands, vegetation is scarce, and trees are notably absent. So skimmers nest directly on the sand: vulnerable, exposed. Males scrape saucer-shaped depressions that typically hold four brown-spotted cream eggs. Both parents tend to the eggs, and after about three to four weeks of incubation, the hatchlings emerge.
Don’t be fooled by a baby skimmer’s appearance of maturity. Despite the hatchlings’ open eyes, and their ability to immediately stand, these down-covered chicks are quite dependent on their parents. Both parents work together to feed and protect their babies for about a month. After four weeks, the young skimmers begin to fly, and after about five weeks, they can fly well enough to fish for themselves. Family units stay together for the season, with the young birds growing stronger and sharpening their fishing skills.
As I watch, four adult skimmers fly to the surf. Strong black wings. Rhythmic, graceful flight. Up down, up down, and turn. They stay in a line, working the water for a few minutes before returning to their hungry hatchlings. A brief pause on the sand, then they’re off again. I understand this parental imperative.
The sun is high now, and I’m getting uncomfortably hot. I turn from my vigil and head toward the inlet to find the kids fishing with their dad.
Everyone is looking a little weary. Time to go home.
It’s a short walk along the creek side of the island to where we anchored. We load our bags, then climb back into the boat. Our son wins the contest for largest whelk. Our daughter, the smallest. All is well.
Anchors and lines stowed, we head back. The tide is up now; we ride higher and can see farther where we are going. The wind has picked up, too. We’ve got a bit of chop. Our daughter bounces on the front bench, and our son gets sprayed in the back. Both sensations are welcome, so there is no haggling over seating arrangements. We are subdued, the fast turns provide a breezy refreshment we enjoy privately. Quietly.
Back at the landing, our ritual unfolds in reverse with hand signals and tie-downs. We load our bags into the truck, and try to wipe sand from our feet before getting in. We’re tired, though, and there’s just too much stuck between our toes. Good enough.
Soon our children will be pulled into migration mode—off to college, to jobs, to kids of their own. But not yet. Not today.
We return. Back to our shelter. Our home.
For us, it is still nesting time.
BEAUTIFUL FLIGHT. Rhythmic wing beats.
Up down. Up down and turn.
Up down and keep going.
Migration pulls our Virginia skimmers south, to overwinter and fatten on the southeastern coasts, from Florida all the way to Central and South America. Global habitat loss is a pervasive and powerful threat to all wildlife, and despite Virginia’s protected nesting grounds, skimmers are not immune. Vulnerable, but not considered endangered, skimmers are classified by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a “species of greatest conservation need” and by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as a “species of high concern.” Both are curious but rather benign designations with little accompanying policy protection. Labels that seem to translate loosely to “let’s just keep an eye on them.”
Better than nothing, I suppose.
Migration pulled our children from home as well. Which is as it should be.
Our daughter followed the Atlantic Flyway a few hundred miles north for love and work and family. Her nurturing role continues—for her spouse, her children, and her students. Middle schoolers can challenge even the most experienced educators, but she offers her classroom a successful and dynamic mix of empathy, respect, and humor.
Our son flew against the prevailing westerlies to establish his nest, finding love and purpose three thousand miles away. The Michigan hat is long gone, but his deep compassion remains and is now fully matched with self-confidence. A powerful mix. He is drawn to union organizing and is fully committed to helping workers find and strengthen their voices.
True, neither of them is endangered, but they will always remain my “species of concern.”
I see them all much less often now, kids and skimmers alike.
Behind our current home, our floating dock lazily rides the three-foot tidal pulse of Mattawoman Creek, a small finger-like extension of Chesapeake Bay. At high water, we have just enough depth to launch our small Whaler. Low tide reveals mud flats and secrets that were covered only hours ago: oyster clumps, raccoon tracks, and fiddler crab holes. We watch great blue herons and great egrets feeding in the shallows. Our skimmers are nowhere in sight. They much prefer to keep their feet clean and out of this soft marshy muck.
Certainly, memories loom larger as visits become less frequent. It’s been many years since our last Shell Beach adventure. I can always close my eyes, though, and see freckled faces warmed by the sun. Kids exploring and splashing. Skimmers feeding with that meditative movement—up down, up down, and turn. Skimming versus diving.
Diving requires a goal that is clearly defined and aggressively pursued. I would like to say my diving days are over, but that isn’t fully true. I’m learning to let go, but I still feel the seductive pull of a well-crafted list and the inflated satisfaction of items ticked off.
Increasingly, though, my lists shorten. Skimming makes ever more sense. Recognizing the tension between possibilities. Enjoying the transitions. Sea and air. Land and sea. Pulling tight and letting go. Nesting and migrating. Childhood and adulthood. Adulthood and elderhood. Skimming the in-between. Up down, up down, and turn. Let’s see where this will take us today.
Patty McLaughlin is a retired educator, currently living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Delmarva Review is pleased to publish her first essay in its 15th anniversary edition.
Delmarva Review selects the best of new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from thousands of submissions during the year. Designed to encourage outstanding writing from authors everywhere, the literary journal is a nonprofit and independent publication. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org