view counter

This Week’s Creature Feature: The Black Skimmer

This shallow-water minnow-scooper is about ready to fly south

      Early in the morning, along the Atlantic Coast, a long, thin bird with an unusual bill will fly inches above the water searching for small fish. Black skimmers have extremely thin bills with much longer lower mandibles. They fly with the long portion cutting up to two inches into the water. When the bill hits an object, one of two things happens. If it is light, like a small fish, then the object slides up the bill and is eaten. If the object is heavy, then the lower mandible snaps backwards and the object is released.
      Black skimmers need to have calm water with fish near the surface to feed. To catch enough fish, they may fly several miles, frequently at night. Skimmers are very graceful birds; in groups, they will turn and skim in dance-like synchrony.
       The birds nest in groups within marshes and dunes along most of our U.S. coasts. The adults scoop a small nest using their tiny feet, then lay two or three eggs. In 21 days, the chicks hatch. They are fairly helpless and need to stay near the nest for the next 14 to 21 days. When they can fly, they will follow the parents’ feeding patterns but still expect to be fed.
      By the end of September, they can feed themselves and get strong for a long migration south. Fish go into deeper water in the winter so the birds must go to warmer waters.
      The birds are affected by coastal development and beach traffic. Sand Key, near Clearwater, had Florida’s largest skimmer nesting areas. That area went under development in the 1970s; now the skimmer population is much, much smaller.  
      Skimmers will visit Chesapeake Bay, nesting near the mouth. During fall migrations, they are commonly seen at Sandy Point State Park and have been spotted north of Baltimore. A population at the Ocean City inlet can be seen feeding along the islands. They will start their trip south by mid-October.