By Larry Czajkoski
It’s summer time, so time to go to the beach! And the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico and southeast US (including coastal North Carolina…from mid-April to late November) is where you’ll be able to spot the Black Skimmer. This relative of the gulls and terns, in general body shape, is a lot like a large tern – except for its huge scissor-like bill. Not only is this bill very long and vertically flattened but it is actually uneven – the lower half is one-third longer than the upper half (it almost looks as if it’s been broken off.) No other bird has a lower mandible longer than the upper.
The Skimmer’s bill evolved to suit a very specialized way of feeding. It flies low over the water skimming it with its bill open, the lower half cutting through the waves, the upper half in the air. When it encounters a fish, shrimp or other morsel, the bill snaps closed and with a quick movement of the head, and the food is swallowed. Don’t blink as this is usually accomplished in less time than it takes to describe, and the skimmer never misses a wing beat during the entire process.
As shown in this photograph I took this past December on a Florida gulf coast beach, the Black Skimmer is a beautiful if not unusual looking bird; it has white under parts, black wings and back, and a short notched tail. The unusual, dual-length bill is red at the base and black at tips. The sexes are alike in plumage, though males are larger than females. Skimmers have an unusual vocalization that has been compared to the bark of a dog.
Black Skimmers are very social, forming close flocks in all seasons. Dusk is the best time to search for skimmers, as they frequently fish during the darkness. Their basic hunting method is entirely by feel, not dependent on sight. Many of them thus become active at twilight, after having rested on a handy sandbar all afternoon (all facing the same direction, into the wind….Ahhh, there’s nothing quite like a “Breeze”…)