Black Skimmer

When we lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, we’d often take long walks along Redington Beach, where we encountered a variety of seabirds and shorebirds, none more fascinating than Black Skimmers.

In flight, black skimmers are graceful, often flying in groups where they circle and bank in synch with each other, almost like an aerial ballet. On land, skimmers breed in colonies. At Redington Beach, the colony easily numbered in the hundreds.

On land, skimmers breed in colonies. At Redington Beach, the colony easily numbered in the hundreds.

In flight, black skimmers are graceful, often flying in groups where they circle and bank in synch with each other, almost like an aerial ballet.

Black skimmers are related to the tern family and spend their entire lives in coastal areas, usually around sandy beaches. They can be found along the shoreline of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts of North America, as well as on barrier islands. Regional names for the species include — cutwater, flood gull, razorbil , scissor-bill, seadog, shearwater, and stormgull.

All the names for the black skimmer seem to relate to its unique physical appearance or foraging behavior.

Appearance

Black skimmers have a stark black crown, nape, and upper body, with a bright white forehead and underparts. Their bill is orange and black. And their legs and feet are reddish-orange. The upper wings are black with white on the rear edge, and the tail and rump are dark grey with white edges.

Their wings are about two and a half times longer than their bodies: sixteen to twenty inch long body with a forty-two to fifty-inch wingspan. Adult males average a little over twelve ounces and adult females about nine ounces.

One distinctive characteristic is their eyes: a dark brown iris with a vertical pupil — common in a cat but unique for a bird.

The other unique feature — the thing that causes you do a double-take when you first encounter a black skimmer — is that the lower half of its bill is longer than the top half. It may be the world’s most noteworthy under-bite.

Feeding

Skimmers feed mostly on small fish that live just below the surface of water. Their diet consists of fish like smelt, flounder, bluefish, silversides, herring, sea trout, mullet, and snapper.

The purpose of the long lower bill is foraging. Skimmers feed by opening their bill and dipping the lower half into the water while they soar inches above. As they plow through the water, they’ll feel a fish, close their jaws, and whip the fish out of the water.

The visual of their flight for food has been likened to a hunting dog on the scent with his nose to the ground.

Its feeding behavior has been described as one of the most amazing of any North American bird. There are three species of skimmers on the planet and they are the only birds that feed in this manner.

Although skimmers generally feed at dawn and dusk, since they feed by touch, they are also able to forage in late evening or night when the water may be more calm, and more fish may be close to the surface.

Nesting

Black skimmer mates take turns scraping a nest in the sand. They kick sand behind them with alternating foot strokes. They rotate their scraping activity to create a saucer- shaped depression. The average scrape is about ten inches in diameter and an inch deep.

Usually four or five eggs are laid. Both parents incubate the eggs, with the male spending more time. The incubation period is twenty-one to twenty-three days.

When they hatch, the upper and lower bill of the young skimmer are equal in length. The equal length of the upper and lower bill comes in handy for the hatchling, because both the mother and the father feed by regurgitation, so the young are able to pick up food dropped on the ground.

By four weeks, the lower bill will be nearly a half inch longer than the upper.

Young skimmers can fly at about twenty-three to twenty-five days.

Population

In the late 19th century, black skimmer eggs were harvested commercially. In addition, adult feathers were popular, leading to a reduction in their numbers as a large number of adults were killed.

Populations have significantly recovered, but the species is still very sensitive to human disturbance by uninformed beach goers and real estate development in their nesting colonies.

© 2019, Sawyer Creative, LLC

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