BLACK SKIMMER (Rynchops niger)
What do you think when you see a medium-size bird with a HUGE bill just basking in the sun on the beach? “What’s wrong?” “Should I call the Wildlife Center of Venice” for help?” “Did an alien land?” None of those! You’ve just spotted a“Black Skimmer” which is a seabird with a bill that defines both the bird and the way it
makes it’s living. The Black Skimmer has a black back, black wings with white edging, and a white belly and head. Its wingspan can be 3 to 3.5 feet, with a height of approx. 19 inches (larger than a Laughing Gull, but smaller than a Royal Tern (although the skimmer has longer wings)). The most noticeable feature of this bird is the bill. This large bill is bright orange close to the face and black towards the tip and is quite wide at the top. It gradually becomes smaller until it forms a sharp point at the end, with the lower part of the bill being noticeably longer than the top. There are 3 species of “skimmers”, however only the Black skimmer is found in the Americas.
The name reflects the way this bird hunts for his food, which is primarily fish. They will fly low over the surface of the water, “skimming” that surface with their lower bill. When they contact a fish, they bend their head forward and snap down with the upper bill and seize their prize. They can be active all day, but most of the activity is at dusk and dawn. While the Skimmers “make their living”
from the water, they do not swim. In Florida, the Black skimmers are found in coastal areas, but are also found in coastal areas from as far north as the northeastern U.S. south to Mexico.
Breeding colonies are most common from southern California to Ecuador. The breeding colonies can range from one pair to several hundred pairs and the birds are quite protective of their nests and will sometimes “mob” something they perceive as “threatening”.
They typically lay from 3 to 5 eggs, with parents taking 4-hour “shifts” to incubate those eggs and both parents will feed the nestlings. The upper and lower bills of the nestlings are the same length, allowing them to pick up bits of food the parents my drop – the lower bill grows longer than the upper during the fledgling
period. Once hatched, the parents will continue to stand guard until the fledglings are able to fly (28-30 days after hatching).
Because these birds nest primarily on beaches, the main threats they face are loss of habitat due to increased development and “traffic disturbance” by human activity (beach driving and other recreational activity), shoreline hardening, mechanical raking, as well as environmental challenges of oil spills, presence of
domestic animals, increased predation by raccoons, crows, opossums, etc., declining fish stocks and the impending threat of rising sea levels destroying nesting areas. Most of the colonies in Florida are under protective management – often by volunteers or local land managers. This usually involves posting informational signs and “symbolic” fencing. As these birds are very sensitive to disturbance, few
of these colonies would survive without this active management and protection. The Black Skimmer is protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty and also by Florida as a “Species of Special Concern” by the Florida “Endangered and
Threatened Species Rule”.
The above information was gleaned from the “Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission” website – a wealth of information!
AND from the Audubon Field Guide
AND from “Birdadorable”
Photo credits go to Kathy Abbott.