The first time that we saw a Black Skimmer was in 2001. I was a novice birder and, while we had a copy of the Sibley Guide to Birds, we had never read it from cover to cover and so were unaware that a bird like the Black Skimmer existed. Nonetheless, there they were, 5 odd-looking birds, vaguely tern-like, sitting in the sand on the beach not far from the wharf in downtown Santa Barbara, California.
Since we rarely left home without Sibley, we quickly identified them as Black Skimmers. Over the next few years, we saw them frequently, usually at the same Santa Barbara location, in numbers ranging from a single bird to as many as 80.
Several Black Skimmer pictures recently showed up in my mailbox for identification taken by the spouse of one of JC’s work-colleagues while on a cruise along the coast of California. Seeing the pictures reminded me of our own encounters and of some of the bird’s more interesting and peculiar aspects.
Taking a Look
The following is one of the pictures from my inbox showing a pair of skimmers close up. From a distance they may look somewhat tern-like however up close there are several things that I find stand out.
First, it looks like they have no eyes which are just well hidden by the black cap. Second, what appears as a forked tail on the right bird is just its extremely long wings crossing. Finally, the bill, unique to skimmers, has a lower mandible that is longer than the upper and is hinged so that it can open wide. This facilitates the skimmers’ unique method of feeding by flying just above the water surface with the lower bill “skimming” the water (see picture).When the bill touches a fish or other prey it snaps shut. This tactile hunting method works well with the skimmers preference for nocturnal hunting when their prey are more likely to be near the surface of the water.
The Black Skimmer has some additional surprises. It is the only bird known to have a vertical pupil like that of a cat. This is thought to be useful for protecting their eyes in the bright environment of the sandy beaches where they spend the day resting while giving them good nocturnal vision while hunting at night.
Another unexpected behaviour of the skimmer is its unique way of resting during the day (picture below) that has probably led more than a few observers into thinking that they were looking a dead or dying bird.
The Black Skimmer, being a social bird, is frequently found in colonies (often with gulls and terns).
Skimmers Around the World
The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is widespread, found throughout a large part of North and South America. In North America they are almost exclusively coastal, ranging North to around San Francisco in the West and Boston in the East. In South America the follow the coast to Chile in the west. In the east, however, they are not just coastal but are found throughout the Amazon Basin fishing the rivers.
Two other skimmer species, one in Africa (R. flavirostris) and one in India (R. albicollis), join the Black Skimmer as the only three skimmer species in the Family Rynchopidae. Their closest relatives are found in the families of birds that include gulls, terns, alcids (puffins, murres, etc.), skuas and a few others without representation in North America.
Having a Listen
One final Black Skimmer surprise. While I don’t recall having ever heard the Black Skimmer call during our many encounters, apparently it resembles the bark of a dog. You be the judge. Here are some recordings that I found on Xeno-Canto from different parts of their range (each link opens a new page/window at the Xeno-Canto site):
Final Thoughts and Additional Information
The Black Skimmer is definitely one of my favourite birds to watch. It has more unique aspects than any other North American birds that I can think of. While not quite the bird equivalent of the platypus in terms of odd construction, it is a slam-dunk for inclusion in the category of Cool Birds!
Here are some other good Black Skimmer resources to check out:
Dan Pancamo’s Black Skimmer picture set on Flickr. It includes a large number of excellent pictures with chicks and juveniles such as the one on the left.
Gochfeld, Michael and Joanna Burger. 1994. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/108