I dare you not to get excited when you see black skimmers scything along the shoreline. I dare you to stay in your own mumbling head, running around on the same hamster wheel of thought. I dare you, as they mow the water, scooping up tiny fish with their preposterous bills, to not at least momentarily skip out of self.
Of course I know you can resist. Skimmers are not the only miraculous animals after all, and human beings excel, beyond all else, at becoming absorbed in their own self stories. But if you actually turn away from those stories and look at these birds for a moment, really look, you’ll need to pause and briefly rearrange the way you think about the world.
Here’s what you’ll see:
A line of birds flying along the shore, the size of small gulls but unmistakably not gulls. Maybe they’re terns, you think for a second, but like no terns you’ve ever seen. An electric red-orange shines from the bills before abruptly turning black halfway toward the tip. It’s a candy-corn color, a color from the pages of a comic book, certainly not something you’d expect to find on real birds. But they are real, and the only birds that have a lower mandible longer than the upper, the better for scooping. They patrol the shore, jaws dropped (like yours maybe), grazing the water and hoping for accidental contact with a fish. At the merest touch, a built-in tactile trigger in their jaw sends a signal to their upper bill, the maxilla, which instantaneously snaps shut.
This might sound miraculous, a thing of wonder, but of course to the fish it is a different, not so wonder-full, story. To the fish the skimmer’s oversized lower mandible cutting through the water might as well be the reaper’s scythe. But you won’t worry too much about the fish as you watch the bird fly belly to belly with the ocean, so close that its reflection seems to fly below it through the water. Instead you’ll watch that lower mandible, the very front part, kick up its small wake as it plows forward. You’ll notice that the birds actually leave a line behind them in the water.
Curious, maybe, you’ll turn to books. You’ll learn that skimmers were once called “sea dogs” for the strange, garbled barking sounds they make. You’ll learn that, like us, they are creatures of edges, harvesting the edge of water and land, working the edges between day and night. Your field guide will wax poetic about their “buoyant” flight, about how they execute “hairpin turns and smooth banks while foraging,” how “their flocks wheel in unison.” As you read on, it may occur to you that evolutionists and creationists could fight for hours over this bird. Days, maybe. Who, after all, the latter group would argue, but a creator, and a creator with a sense of humor, could have created this? The joke-shop nose, the funny barking, the crazy way of getting dinner. The former group would rebut that the silly bill is fit exactly to its task, so could have evolved into no other shape. The only thing the two camps will agree on, throwing up their hands, will be the bizarre uselessness of the bill’s candy-corn color.
You, however, will become greedy for skimmers. You’ll start planning your walks for dawn or dusk so that you can see them gracefully mowing the water. Of course to say that you will return from your walks changed is an exaggeration. Maybe you’ll barely remember the sights of the scything birds during the rest of your day. But if not fundamentally changed, you will be in some unspoken way mildly altered. At the very least you’ll have experienced a blip in the day’s habitual worry. Perhaps, better yet, those sharp bills will have given you a cutting gift, slicing through the nettles of thought long enough for you to notice briefly that there are vast worlds beyond your own.