Love on Lido Key

By Pam Daniel Photography by Ted Mase December 1, 2012

An intimate look at a pair of black skimmers raising their chicks.

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The family cuddles after a meal.

At dusk Sarasota's beaches are often thick with colonies of sea birds; most of us have thrilled to seeing them fill the sky as they take flight around us. But one spring evening on Lido Key, photographer Ted Mase noticed that two white-and-black birds in the crowd were mating. Mase, who as a kid would take his father's old Rangefinder camera—without film—on hikes around a nearby lake and pretend to be Jacques Cousteau, "shooting everything in sight," was intrigued. He went home and looked up the birds, learning they were black skimmers, and decided he would follow a pair through nesting and raising their chicks. Thus began an obsession—and labor of love.

For four hours every night for the next two-and-a-half months, Mase would lie in the sand, observing and photographing the same nest. Through trial and error, he arrived at the perfect equipment—a tripod mounted on a toilet seat lid, which he would push through the sand, crawling on his stomach, until he got as close as the birds would allow—usually 30 feet or so. From this privileged perch, he enjoyed an intimate view of skimmer family life. He learned that parents took turns guarding the nest and feeding the chicks and that they played with their offspring and taught them, too. "The adults would spend a lot of time passing twigs to the children; eventually the chicks would pick up twigs and give them to each other," he says.

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Ted Mase

He'd watch, alarmed, as a father stuffed a four-inch fish into the mouth of a four-inch chick; for what seemed forever, the fish would protrude from the chick's mouth and distend its belly, but eventually it would disappear. He saw tragedies, too—nests lost to predators or careless beachwalkers, a chick plucked from the nest by a laughing gull, who flew off with it in his talons, followed by the desperate mother, who helplessly watched as the gull flipped her baby into its mouth and swallowed.

He also watched scenes of family tenderness, as parents cuddled their chicks, surrounding them with their feathery wings. "You get so attached," he admits. "On a cold night, I'd go home and worry about how they'd survive."

Mase followed this routine for the next three springs. "I would always finish with a swim in the Gulf," he says. "I'd be covered with sand, like a sandman, and my knees would be abraded from crawling over shells. I'd just float in the water and think how lucky I was to be having this experience."—Pam Daniel

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An adult takes off after a bath; no longer a baby, a young skimmer departs the nest for life on his own; hungry chicks greet their father after he returns from hunting; a male, right, initiates courtship by offering a fish to the female he has chosen; accepting the fish signals her willingness to mate.

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