Tag Archives: California

The Peculiar Black Skimmer

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.

Black Skimmers - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmers – used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

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.

Black Skimmer Snoozing - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmer Snoozing – used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

The Black Skimmer, being a social bird, is frequently found in colonies (often with gulls and terns).

Black Skimmers - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmers – Used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

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):

Brazil, Mato Grosso do Sul: Black Skimmer

USA, Florida: Black Skimmer colony (300+ birds)

Brazil, Amazonas: Flight calls of two Black Skimmers defending their nest

USA: New Jersey: Black Skimmers

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:

Black Skimmer and Chick by Dan Pancamo

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

ABA Bird #981 – the Nutmeg Mannikin

Nutmeg Mannikin 1The September 7 post ABA Adds Nutmeg Mannikin, #981 by the ABA blogger Bill Pranty, announced the acceptance of species #981, the Nutmeg Mannikin, to the list of ABA countable species.  According to the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) the Nutmeg Mannikin is an established species in certain regions of California which, in the end, was good enough for ABA acceptance.  It can now be counted but only in those regions.

When we lived in Southern California we knew of this bird’s existence through the short entry on a page of exotic finches near the back of our first edition copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds published in 2000.  We never actually saw one of these while we lived there (we left in 2005) but we did eventually see one on a vacation to the island of Kaua’I in 2012.  They have been long established on the Hawaiian Islands having been introduced in 1866 [Ref 2] and are on the AOU checklist which includes Hawai’i.  Even though most of the rest of the world recognizes this species by the name Scaly-breasted Munia, the ABA has the tradition of using the AOU name first if available.  Bill Pranty in his post hints that an AOU name change could eventually result in a change to the more widespread name that is also the name recognized by the International Ornithologists’ Union [Ref 4].

I tried to find out where the alternate name of Nutmeg Mannikin came from but have so far been unsuccessful.  All I have been able to discover is that in the pet trade the more common names are Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch. If anyone knows the answer I would love to find out.

If you want more information on the Nutmeg Mannikin, take a look at Bill Pranty’s blog article.  It has lots more information and useful links.  I now have one more bird to look for on my next visit to Southern California.

Nutmeg Mannikins In Birdfeeder

References and Other Links

[1] ABA Adds Nutmeg Mannikin, #981; 2013-09-07 ABA blog posting by Bill Pranty.

[2] Monograph: Nutmeg Mannikin, from the Bishop Museum (http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org).

[3] Houston Audubon Birding: Nutmeg Mannikin (Lonchura punctulata).  This link has an identification chart showing a juvenile mannikin photographed weekly until it reached adult plumage.  I wish that I could have such a chart for all birds in my area.

[4] International Ornithologists’ Union: World Bird List.

[5] Wikipedia: Scaly-breasted Munia.