Best known for its unusual bill and foraging method, the Black Skimmer has three recognized races, only one of which occurs in the U.S. Very gregarious and a colonial nester, Black Skimmers defend only a small are around their nest when incubating, and a slightly larger area when rearing chicks.
Predation and flooding both act to reduce nest success, and only about 50% of pairs successfully raise young in a given year. Although up to 5 eggs are laid, only one or two young are usually raised. Black Skimmers have been known to live 20 years in the wild.
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Description of the Black Skimmer
The Black Skimmer is a large-billed, long-winged coastal bird. Its crown, upperwings, and upperparts are black, its underwings and underparts are white, its unusual bill is mostly orange with a black tip, and the lower mandible is much longer than the upper mandible. Length: 18 in. Wingspan: 44 in.
Females have a black nape and a smaller bill.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter adults are similar to breeding adults.
Juveniles and immature birds have brownish upperparts.
Black Skimmers inhabit ocean beaches.
Black Skimmers eat fish.
Black Skimmers forage by flying just above the surface of the water and skimming the surface with their elongated lower mandible, snapping the bill closed when a fish is touched.
Black Skimmers are resident along the southern Atlantic, Gulf, and southern Pacific Coasts of North America. The population appears to be stable.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Black Skimmer.
Black Skimmers have vertical pupils to reduce glare from the water.
Black Skimmers are very social, and are usually seen in flocks.
Common calls include nasal barking.
The bill of the Black Skimmer is unique.
The American Oystercatcher has a somewhat similar black and white color pattern. Behavior of the two species is totally different, as are the bills.
The Black Skimmer’s nest is a scrape in the sand.
Number: 4-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish or buffy in color with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 21-23 days, and leave the nest in several days, though they associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Black Skimmer
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black Skimmer – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
RYNCHOPS NIGRA (Linnaeus)HABITS
The coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas are fringed with chains of low, sandy islands, many of them lying far out from the shores, with broad, flat, sandy beaches on the ocean side, and often on the inner side with extensive salt marshes which are intersected by numerous creeks and shallow estuaries. Although practically worthless for human occupancy, these islands form ideal resorts for several species of water birds and shore birds. Cobb’s Island, undoubtedly the most famous and perhaps the most typical of this class of islands, has for many years been a popular resort for sportsmen and bird lovers, though its bird population has been sadly depleted during recent years. The countless thousands of least terns, which once enlivened its sandy shores, have all disappeared into the capacious maw of the millinery trade. The gull-billed terns have been nearly exterminated and the common terns much reduced in numbers by the same agency. Only a few nests of each are still to be found on the pebbly sand flats. The laughing gulls still breed in fair numbers on the salt marshes, but they are persistently robbed by egg-hunting fishermen, and the once populous breeding colonies of willets have been nearly annihilated by sportsmen, who shoot the local breeding birds as well as the migrants. Fortunately the black skimmers are not regarded as game birds and their plumage is not in demand for millinery purposes, so that they still frequent their favorite breeding grounds in large numbers.
When the rising tide flows in around the island, covering the outer sand bars, driving the birds from their low-tide roosting and feeding places and flooding the shallow estuaries, then the “flood gulls,” as they are called, may be seen skimming over the muddy shallows, about the mouths of the creeks, or up into the narrow inlets, gracefully gliding on their long, slender wings close to the surface in search of their finny prey, the tiny minnows, which have followed the advancing tide into the protecting, grassy shallows. It is a pleasure to sit and watch their graceful evolution in their untiring efforts to secure a meal, as they quarter back and forth over the same ground again and again, cutting the smooth surface of the water with their razor-like bills, scaling, wheeling, and turning like giant swallows, silently engrossed in their occupation for which they are so highly specialized.
Spring: The black skimmers arrive on their breeding grounds on Cobb’s Island and in its vicinity late in April or early in May but they are late breeders. For several weeks they roam about in large flocks or roost on the sand bars in masses so dense that they blacken the ground, every bird facing the wind. When resting or sleeping in such situations they squat closely or sit upon the sand for hours, but if approached every bird rises to its feet and simultaneously all mount suddenly into the air, flying straight toward the intruder with a chorus of peculiar barking yelps; wheeling just in time they circle over his head, perform a series of aerial evolutions, now high in the air and again close to the water, until they finally settle again on the sand. Their mating performances show off their marvelous powers of flight to advantage and are most exciting as two or more males give chase to the coveted female.
The coy one, shooting aslant to either side, dashes along with marvelous speed, flying hither and thither, upward, downward, in all directions. Her suitors strive to overtake her; they emit their love cries with vehemence; you are gladdened by their softly and tenderly enunciated ha, ha, or the hack, hack, cae, cae, of the last in the chase. Like the female, they all perform the most curious zigzags as they follow In close pursuit, and as each beau at length passes her In succession he extends his wings for an Instant, and In a manner struts by her side. (Audubon, 1840.)
Nesting: In 1907 I spent the last week in June on Cobb’s Island and other islands in its vicinity where I found several large colonies of black skimmers just beginning their breeding operations. On Pig Island, a low, flat, sandy island, entirely devoid of vegetation and barely above high-water mark during the spring tides, I found two large colonies. They had chosen for their breeding grounds the higher portions of the sand flats beyond the reach of high tides, where numerous oyster, clam, and scallop shells were scattered about, half buried in the sand, among which the eggs were not conspicuous. Large numbers of little hollows had been scraped out in the sand, but, even at that late date, June 24, laying had only just begun; two nests were seen with one egg each and one with two eggs. Many of the birds were already squatting on the empty hollows or were busy with their courtships. They were very solicitous, flying out to meet us or circling about in flocks, uttering their characteristic notes of protest. A few days later, June 28, we visited another large colony of black skimmers in a similar situation on Wreck Island. They had evidently begun laying at about the same time, for many of the nests contained two or three eggs and one nest held four. The nest hollows measured from 4 to 5 inches in diameter and from 1 to 2 inches in depth; the nests were all entirely devoid of any attempt at lining. Several pairs of gull-billed terns and a few common terns were nesting in the midst of this colony.
Black skimmers formerly bred commonly on low sandy islands on the coast of New Jersey, but the encroachments of civilization have driven them away to more secluded spots. They still breed abundantly at certain points on the coasts of the Carolinas. Messrs. B. S. Bowdish (1910) and P. B. Philipp in 1909 found about 200 nesting on Royal Shoals, North Carolina, with a number of common and least terns, where on June 24, they were just beginning to lay; and at Bull’s Bay, South Carolina, they found about a thousand beginning to lay between June 10 and 15. Mr. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) writes as follows regarding their breeding habits in South Carolina:
Twenty years age these curious birds used to breed regularly on Sullivans Island, and by May 15 full complements of eggs could be procured. At present, however, the breeding season Is much later than formerly, and the birds, as a rule, have forsaken the coast islands (Including Sullivans, Long, and Capers) and breed, or try to, mainly on the larger keys. As fast as the eggs are laid they are taken by any boatman who happens to discover them. The birds are thus forced to lay again and again in order to raise a brood, and hence the breeding season is a long one, being protracted through August.
In the Breton Island and other reservations off the coast of Louisiana I found a number of interesting skimmer colonies in 1910, where they have flourished under the adequate protection afforded them. On Grand Cochere, the outermost island, a low, flat sand bar, about 300 pairs were breeding a little apart from the large colonies of royal and Cabot’s terns, nesting in hollows in the sand, as usual. The largest colony, and the one most typical of the region, was found on Battledore Island, where I spent the whole of one day (June 21), and, as the birds were very tame under the constant protection of the resident warden, I was able to study them at close range from my blind. On this little island, not over 4 acres in extent, I estimated that fully 5,000 pairs of laughing gulls, 1,000 pairs of black skimmers, 50 pairs of Louisiana herons, 30 pairs of Forster’s terns, and 25 pairs of common terns were breeding. A large number of skimmers were nesting by themselves on an open beach of finely broken oyster shells which formed a long narrow point at one end of the island. They were also nesting at several places with the laughing gulls on the high ridges of broken oyster shells back of the beaches, which were more or less covered with scattered clumps of beach grass and small mangrove bushes. The gulls’ nests were usually concealed among the vegetation, but the skimmers selected the more open spaces. The skimmers’ nests were merely hollows scooped out in the loose shells, where the eggs were almost invisible. Nearly all the nests contained full sets of four or five eggs, but no young were seen; I saw only one young skimmer on the whole trip – a newly hatched chick, picked up on Hog Island, on June 22. The impression seems to have prevailed among the earlier writers that the black skimmers do not sit on their eggs in the daytime; it is true that they may, under favorable circumstances, leave their eggs uncovered for considerable periods, but they certainly protect their eggs from the sun’s rays on hot days and keep them warm in cold or wet weather. I believe that they incubate most of the time. On Breton Island they certainly returned quickly to their eggs and sat upon them almost constantly within a few feet of my blind. The male usually stands besides his mate while she is incubating.
Life in these closely populated colonies is never dull; birds are constantly coming and going, skimming close over the heads of their sitting companions, causing frequent snappings of beaks or, if they come too near, grunts of protest or even little squabbles. When approaching her nest the bird alights 3 or 4 feet away, looks around carefully, walks slowly to her nest with her head held high, and gradually settles down on the eggs, working them under her plumage with the aid of wings and feet. She is restless and uneasy, craning her neck and looking about at every new comer. She may leave and return to the nest several times before settling down to quiet incubation. On this and other islands in the reservations the black skimmers seemed to be living in perfect harmony with their neighbors, the laughing gulls, and were apparently never robbed by them.
The following extract from some notes, sent to me by Mr. Stanley C. Arthur, is worth quoting, as illustrating the nervous restlessness of this species:
One pair of skimmers immediately in front of my blind afforded me a great deal of amusement during the entire afternoon. The female was very much scared, it seemed to me, and watched the blind into which I had disappeared, although the rest of the colony paid no attention to the khaki-colored tent that had been erected on their home grounds. This particular skimmer can best be described as being “skerry,” and her lord and master was very much exercised over her behavior. She would wing her way over the nesting grounds, then swoop down over her nest of eggs, and when just about to alight would give her long black wings a flap and soon be soaring again into the air. Her mate would watch her approach and departure with sundry twistings of the head, and at times I feared he would twist his neck off, as he endeavored to follow her flight as she would rapidly circle over the eggs. He would run over to the eggs with little mincing footsteps and indicate by example how she should come and sit on them. In this performance the male bird did not wholly cover the eggs with his breast feathers, as the incubating birds usually do, but rather squatted over them and followed the aerial revolutions of his mate with a constantly moving head. The wife made several stops as though intending to alight on her eggs, and finally did so, coming lightly to the ground and running up to the eggs and covering them properly with her breast feathers. There would be peace and quiet until some (to me) undiscovered alarm would send the whole colony into the air ‘baying like a pack of hounds.” After several sweeping flights through the air the whole skimmer colony would settle back on the eggs and remain quiet, except for the thin yelps that went on all the time, whether there was anything untoward to excite them or not.
Although the breeding season is often much prolonged by various disasters only one brood is raised in a season. The normal set consists of four or five eggs, though three often constitute a complete set, and sometimes as many as six or seven are laid. In the Breton Island reservation egg laying begins the very last of May or first of June; on the Virginia coast the laying season begins fully three weeks later; the black skimmer is therefore one of the last of the sea birds to lay. The period of incubation seems to be unknown; so far as I have been able to observe only the female incubates.
Eggs: A series of black skimmer’s eggs makes a striking feature in a collection, showing many interesting variations of bold and picturesque color patterns. The ground color is rarely pure white, but usually pale bluish white or creamy white, varying on the one hand to pale greenish blue, almost a heron’s egg color, and on the other hand to deep ” cream buff” or “pinkish buff.” They are usually heavily marked with various shades of brown, from “tawny olive” and “burnt umber” to “seal brown” or “clove brown”; sometimes fairly evenly distributed as small spots, but more often in large irregular blotches or splashes in an endless variety of patterns. Nearly all of the eggs are more or less heavily spotted or blotched, and some are very prettily marked, with various shades of “lilac gray,” “lavender gray,” or “olive gray.” In shape they vary from rounded ovate to elongate ovate, with a prevailing tendency toward the former shape. The measurements of 58 eggs in the United States National Museum average 45 by 33.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 51 by 32, 45 by 36, 41.5 by 31, and 43 by 30.5 millimeters.
Young: Mr. Arthur has sent me the following notes on the behavior of young skimmers:
While the colony under observation were still incubating their eggs I had an excellent opportunity to note the young in all stages, from those almost ready to fly to the young Just out of the shell, and I also had an opportunity of noting the way the young skimmers are fed. This is done in two ways: The downy young are fed by regurgitation, the food being dropped by the parent bird on the ground; but so avid are the little ones for food that they pick at the parent bird’s bill as the fish Is being dropped, and then pick it up as a tiny chicken would pick up moistened bread. When the young birds commence to show their feathers they are fed whole fish by the parent bird. The fish is carried crosswise in the bill of the parent from where they are secured to the nesting grounds and Is handed direct to the young bird. If by chance the parent bird drops the fish before its young can take it from the bill, the little one will pick it up from the ground by turning its head and bill sidewise. This is not a difficult accomplishment, as the difference in length between the upper and lower mandibles Is very slight at this period.
From their earliest stage the young skimmers have a habit of scratching themselves into a hollow and lying absolutely flat upon the shell-covered beach. While this habit is displayed mostly by the downy young, I have seen it exhibited to a great extent by the feathered young when the young birds are able to run about and danger threatens. Then they will throw themselves fiat on the shells of the beach and scratch alternately with their little webbed feet backward. They make about 15 or 20 movements before they snuggle down to rest, and while their legs are in action they make the shells fly most energetically. When the hollow Is dug sufficiently to allow them to lie flush with the surrounding beach they remain absolutely motionless, and as their colorization is such as to indicate that nature has provided a protective mimicry, yet they are not difficult to detect; and, as the accompanying photographs show, they stand away from their surroundings most vividly. The chirp of the young is no different from that of the other sea birds, such as the laughing gulls and the terns, and they show the same marked instinct of recognizing their parents’ raucous cries from the other alarms.
Plumages: The young skimmer when first hatched is completely covered with soft, thick down, pale “vinaceous buff” above, lightly mottled with dusky on the back, and only faintly so mottled on the head, the under parts being pure white. As the youngster spends most of its time lying fiat on the sand, its protective coloration conceals it admirably. It fades so invisibly into its surroundings that it is hard to realize that it is a living bird. During the downy stage it well knows the value of the hiding pose, and lies prostrate on the sand with head outstretched and eyes closed until touched, when it runs away with surprising agility. The razor-shaped bill is apparent even in the youngest chick, but the specialized bill of the adult is not fully developed until the flight stage is reached. The youngest birds are fed on semidigested food from the parent’s throat, but after a few days they learn to run about, and are gradually taught to feed on more solid food, principally small fish. When the young birds have attained their growth and have acquired the juvenal plumage, before they learn to fly, they gather in flocks and learn to feed on what they can pick up along the water’s edge. At this time the mandibles are of equal length. The long lower mandible of the adult would be a serious handicap in feeding, and therefore it is not developed until the bird has learned to skim the surface of the water for its food.
The juvenal plumage is handsomely and boldly marked; the upper half of the head is “pale ochraceous salmon” colored and the feathers of the back, scapulars, and wing-coverts are broadly tipped and edged with the same color, each feather being centrally dusky. These edgings, which are fully a quarter of an inch broad on the scapulars, soon fade out to white and wear away, leaving a dingy mottled effect on the upper parts. During the winter some progress is made toward maturity, and at the first prenuptial molt, which is complete, young birds become practically indistinguishable from adults. Adults have two complete molts each year, a prenuptial in February and March and a postnuptial in August and September. The adult winter plumage is similar to the nuptial, but the upper parts are browner, and there is a more or less distinct nuchal collar of whitish feathers.
Food: The food of the black skimmer consists mainly of small fish, and to some extent shrimps and other small crustaceans. It feeds largely on the wing by skimming close to the smooth water, cutting with its long, rigid lower mandible the surface, from which it scoops into the small mouth the animal food to be found there. The upper mandible, which is movable, can plainly be seen to close down upon any morsel of food which is picked up. That it feeds largely at night everyone knows who has lain at anchor among the shoals of the South Atlantic coast and seen the shadowy forms flitting by in the gloom, but it does not do so exclusively, as has been stated. I have frequently seen it feeding in broad daylight, and think that it is more influenced by the tides than by anything else, for these at certain stages make its food more accessible. It is never seen to dive for its food, and its bill is not adapted for picking it up on the shore.
Mr. Arthur seems to have discovered another method of feeding, about which he writes me:
According to my observations the birds seek shallow water of not over 3 inches depth and pick up minnows and other small fish by a direct forward movement of the head and bill, In no way differing from a chick picking up a worm on dry land. Skimmers I have had in captivity, where fish was thrown to them on a hard surface, were compelled to turn their heads sideways to pick up the fish; but the skimmers I had under observation were working on a soft mud bottom, and I did not observe a single instance of the head being turned sideways to pick up the food. It was very noticeable at this time that while some of the birds were fishing in the shallow water other skimmers would come skimming over the water in the characteristic manner, but when they came to a stop they, too, began wading around and fishing in the manner I have just described.
Stomachs collected and sent to the United States Bureau of Biological Survey for identification of contents very unfortunately proved to be empty, and I have no positive data from this source as to what constituted the skimmer’s food at this time of the year, but on July 5, while on Alexander Island, there occurred an unusual Incident, in which a fish, a Forster tern, and a birdologist all figured. Making my way along a stretch of sandy beach I noted a skimmer flying toward the island holding crosswise in its bill a small fish. The reflections of the bright sun rays from the scales of the fish first attracted my attention. I was next attracted by a series of muffled ” yap -yap- yap’s,” intermingled with several “tear-tear-tear-tear-r-r-r-r-r’s” of a very active Forster tern that was pursuing the skimmer and intent upon forcing the big black bird to drop its lawfully acquired prey. The Forster’s efforts were without any great success, however, until the two birds performed the aerial fracas just above my head and about 100 feet in the air. At this juncture the tern succeeded in scaring the skimmer by a very quick and vigorous dart aimed at the back of the black bird’s bead, which caused it to drop the fish, which fell in the mud at the edge of a shallow pond about 75 feet from where I was standing. Recognizing an opportunity to secure positive evidence of the food of the skimmer, I dropped the camera I was carrying and it was “nip and tuck” between the tern and me who would get the fish. I got the fish, but I have never before received such a scolding from a bird. The Forster tern seemed absolutely beside itself with rage, and followed me for over a mile along the beach, where the captain of our patrol boat was waiting for me with a small motor boat. It was not until we had put off from the island and headed in the direction of our large boat that the tern decided that there was no way of bullying me into returning the fish that he felt he had earned by right of combat. I identified the fish, which was about 2 1/2 inches long, as a squeteague, or so-called sea trout, and evidently Cynoscion nothus, the so-called “bastard” weak fish; and this information was afterwards concurred in by the United States Bureau of Fisheries.
Behavior: In flight the black skimmer is one of the most graceful of sea birds and the most highly specialized. Its slender build, its long, powerful wings and its broad forked tail are perfectly adapted to its modes of life. The strongest winds offer but little resistance to the little ball of feathers, supported by two long, slender blades which cut the air like the keenest razor. It has a strong combination of buoyancy and strength; it is swift and skillful on the wing, and always holds itself in perfect control. When flying in a flock, as is customary, its movements are synchronous to a high degree of perfection, the whole flock twisting, turning, wheeling, rising, or falling in perfect unison. Of its voice not much can be said in the way of praise, for it is harsh and grating and far from pleasing. When flying out to meet the intruder on its breeding grounds it indulges in a chorus of peculiar nasal barking notes or grunting sounds, like the syllables, “Kak, kak, kak,” or “Kuk, kuk, kuk,” in a low, guttural tone. It also has a variety of soft love notes, sounding like “Kow, kow,” or “Keow, keow,” suggestive of certain gull notes.
Winter: Although gregarious at all seasons the black skimmers are especially so in the fall and winter, when they gather in large flocks, flying in close formation, or roosting in dense masses on the sand bars or beaches. It is only when they are feeding that they are scattered out over the shoals. As soon as the young are able to fly in September the fall migration begins, and they retire from the northern portions of their range to spend the winter about the numerous shallow bays, estuaries, and creeks on the coasts of Florida and the Gulf States. They are never seen far out at sea and are seldom driven inland.
Breeding range: On the Atlantic coast from Virginia (Northampton County) to northeastern Florida (Nassau and Dowal Counties). On the Gulf coast from the Florida Keys to Louisiana and southern Texas (Cameron County). Formerly north to New Jersey and still earlier to Massachusetts. Present in summer and probably breeding on the coasts of Venezuela (Margarita) and Yucatan (Progreso).
Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservations: In Alabama, Petit Bois Island; in Louisiana, Breton Island and Tern Islands.
Winter range: From northern Florida (mouth of St. Johns River) and from the coast of Louisiana southward, all around the Gulf of Mexico, and along the northern and eastern coasts of South America.
Spring migration: Arrives in South Carolina about the middle of April and in Virginia about the last of April, or first week of May.
Fall migration: Leaves Virginia about September 10 and South Carolina by November 15 at the latest.
Casual records: Has wandered as far north and east as the Bay of Fundy (Grand Manan, August, 1879). Accidental inland: New York (Whitesboro, October, 1893); South Carolina (Chester, September 10, 1882); and Tennessee (Obion County). One record for Bermuda (October, 1876).
Egg dates: Virginia: Thirty-two records, June 2 to July 20; sixteen records, June 18 to 26. South Carolina: Twenty records, May 15 to July 16; ten records, June 23 to July 4. Texas: Twenty records, May 10 to July 4; ten records, June 1 to 15.