"Ah, I'm so proud of this colony," said Chris Kisiel, senior environmental specialist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
Two years ago, most of the skimmers were on the remote southern tip of Stone Harbor or nearby Champagne Island. But the tidal island disappeared under water, and the Hereford Inlet area of Stone Harbor flooded, attracting predator gulls and foxes and sending the skimmers to the little strand with a view of Longport and the north end of Ocean City.
"It is very surprising," Kisiel said, peering through binoculars at the edge of the beach, which the state has roped off for several years as a protected nesting area for terns, plovers, and skimmers. Each year has brought a dramatic increase in the skimmer count. "It just seems so incredibly odd to have the road so close."
But close it is, with the entire breathtakingly choreographed colony sometimes soaring out over cyclists, trucks, and loaded-up SUVS on the road before landing back again near the edge of the bay.
A similar display of ospreys is available for viewing from your car as you drive over the Margate Bridge, where several wooden nests the state erected have yielded a banner year for the family-oriented birds and their young. And from busy Wellington Avenue in Ventnor, egrets are visible in marshes across from the Pathmark supermarket and the new Checkers restaurant.
Tourists travel thousands of miles to national parks to pull their cars over and stand gazing through binoculars at ospreys and other birds, but in Atlantic County, only a handful ever stop to look on their way to the beach.
"I was talking to three people at the dog beach and said, 'Have you seen the skimmer colony?' and they had no idea about the skimmer colony," said Melissa Tucker, a state seasonal field specialist. "It's amazing; it's right here."
Tucker has spent the spring and summer with the brain-numbing task of counting the birds one by one. "It feels like I've taken the SAT every time," she said.
After seeing the dense crowd of birds - the skimmer equivalent of blanket to blanket on the beach - Kisiel was optimistic: "I feel like it might be more," she said.
A woman on the beach, when told the count, was skeptical: "Give or take a thousand."
From below, as the birds suddenly take flight, the view is stirring: their breasts and bellies are bright white, and the underside of their wings bears a gradual, painterly shading from white to gray to a sharp black outline at the edge - like eyeliner.
The flash of orange beak gives a stylish look that stands out from the typical seagull. "I always say they belong on a tropical island," Tucker said.
They are a handsome and jaunty lot standing on the beach: stark black on top, skinny orange legs, and black-and-orange beaks.
"They look like penguin seagulls," said Marin Makely, 11, of Haddonfield, who walked with three generations of her family to the edge of the dog beach to look.
The land is owned by the Seaview Harbor Marina, and the state did get a few complaints when the Department of Environmental Protection roped off a large section as a protected beach and forbid dogs on the strand next to the marina.
Eric Sturgis of Somers Point, who works on the boats in the marina, grumbled a little. "This first section is private, the middle one's for the birds, the other end is the dogs," he said. "There's nothing left for me."
Others find the spectacle sublime. It is, for sure, the only place in New Jersey where you can lie on the beach next to a colony of endangered skimmers. As long as you belong to the marina, anyway. "It used to be our beach, now it's theirs," joked Marla Transue of Shamong.
Jim Robson, 73, of Bargaintown, a retired banker who grew up summering in Longport, made a special stop last week on his way to his dentist in Ventnor. "I haven't seen skimmers in years," he said. "This is the first time I've ever seen them like this. It's unbelievable."
Kisiel said she believed the birds liked the inlet for the gentle topography of the sand - no huge dunes, but lots of vegetation - and the protected waterways between the boats of the marina, where they can be seen skimming for food. With the breeze blowing off the bay, the sound of causeway traffic is muffled. The birds mostly turn their backs on the road, anyway.
"It's such a beautiful sight," she said. "They did so well this year. There's no reason for them not to come back."
They are graceful and charismatic birds to watch. Weighing less than a pound, they rarely go farther north than New Jersey or New York, and end up wintering as far south as South America, often in remote rain forests.
As for their chirping, "It's somewhere between a bark and a quack, almost like puppies," Tucker said.
"I feel like they're saying, "Marco! Polo!" Kisiel said.
With no apparent reason, the entire colony will take flight, swoop up and around, and settle on a spot of beach a short distance away.
The juveniles - at this stage all gray - wait around to be fed by their parents, who use a beak with a longer lower mandible as a scoop under the water as they fly just above it. They literally skim the surface of the water for bait fish.
"When [the lower mandible] hits something, they clamp down," said Todd Pover, head of the state's Endangered Species Program.
Last year, about 700 or 800 birds started the season in Egg Harbor Township, and by the end of the summer, with the addition of the bird refugees from Stone Harbor, the population had swollen to about 1,700. But because the nesting - they make little divots in the sand called scrapes that typically contain three or four eggs - happened so late, many were lost in a late summer storm.
As Hurricane Earl approached from the Carolinas, Kisiel said she believed these juveniles - hatched in June and July - would fare much better. "These guys are so much older," she said.
The skimmers should stay around the beach for a few more weeks and are then expected to mass at a staging beach on the Second Avenue jetty in Cape May before heading south. "Can we just tell them where to go?" Kisiel asked. "No. They go where they want to go."
Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.