The Black Skimmer

Flock of Black Skimmers in flightFlock of Black Skimmers in flight over Fort De Soto’s north beach - D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 250, 70-300mm VR at 170mm, natural light

Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) are beautiful and unmistakable, with their long orange/red black tipped bill, white underparts, blackish upperparts and distinctive barking (yip or yep) call, there is no other coastal waterbird in North America that looks anything like them. There also isn’t another waterbird in North America that feeds like they do.

Black Skimmer SkimmingBlack Skimmer adults skimming - D200, f5.6, 1/800, ISO 160, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

The Black Skimmer’s bill has an unusual shape, it is long and thin, the lower mandible is noticeably longer than the upper maxilla. When they are feeding the black skimmer’s lower bill skims the water surface and slices through the water, when the bird senses prey with the lower bill the upper bill snaps shut capturing the prey. Black skimmers usual eat small fish though they may also take small crustaceans. Skimmers are active during the day but they are also successful hunters during the night.

Calling adult Black SkimmerAdult Black Skimmer calling
D200, handheld while laying in the sand, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 200, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Photographing Black Skimmers can be very challenging because of the high contrast of the whites, darks and reds. Additionally their long narrow body shape when resting on the ground can present difficulties with composition.

The dark feathers on the upper part normally have some brown tones, they are not truly black. The adult skimmer in the image above is in breeding plumage, in nonbreeding plumage there is an area above the shoulder to the back of the head that will be white. The male is slightly larger than the female and has a slightly longer bill. The wingspan is about 44 inches.

Black Skimmer juvenileJuvenile Black Skimmer - D200, handheld while laying in the sand, f9, 1/500, ISO 160, 80-400mm VR at 330mm, natural light

Juvenile Black Skimmers have the same shape as adults, their bills are shorter and duller. Juveniles have brown mottled feathers on their backs which reminds me of the pattern of herringbone. The juvenile above was capable of flight though it appeared to prefer staying on the beach and having the adults feed it instead of foraging for itself at this age.

Black Skimmer in flight Adult Black Skimmer in flight - D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/2000, ISO 250, 80-400mm VR at 400m, natural light

Skimmers are graceful in flight, their wing movements are buoyant. Even from a long distance their flight pattern can be used to identify them. During mating season there can be exciting aerial displays between males.

Highly gregarious skimmers are often seen in large flocks and nest in colonies. If you sit quietly on the beach before dawn you may be able to hear a flock of skimmers coming in from a night of feeding or see them fly into shore in the pale light of dawn, either one an experience you won’t soon forget.

I have more to write about this species at a later time.


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