Black Skimmers – Highly gregarious and unmistakable

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

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

Black Skimmer SkimmingBlack Skimmer adults skimming – Nikon D200, f5.6, 1/800, ISO 160, Nikkor 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.

Black Skimmer adult on beachAdult Black Skimmer calling – Nikon D200, handheld while laying in the sand, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 200, Nikkor 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 while the nape and head appear 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 – Nikon D200, handheld while laying in the sand, f9, 1/500, ISO 160, Nikkor 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 – Nikon D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/2000, ISO 250, Nikkor 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.

Mia

Images created in 2008 and 2009

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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.

13 Comments

  1. Most often I posted with untethered admiration. This time, I admit it’s admiration tinged with envy. I have been trying to photograph Black Skimmers in SoCal whenever I visit but my opportunities are usually tiny time windows during less-than-optimal light. I wouldn’t imagine capturing anything as magnificent as what you’ve displayed here, so maybe it’s all for the best to leave skimmers in the hands of an expert like yours truly. :) I didn’t realize the bills operated that way, thanks for the education.

  2. Humming Bird Lover

    Hi! Love the colors and great shots of the birds! Keep up the great work! You are the best
    at your love of taking photo’s!

  3. Marvelous work Mia – as always. What time of year were these taken? I hoping to be in the area next spring and was wondering if that would be a good time for skimmers too.

  4. Fantastic, Mia. A wonderful, full-bodied lesson on this bird,
    with spectacular (as ususal!) photos.
    Thanks so much,
    Mary

  5. Very informative and outstanding images — I had no idea their wings were so long. Makes me want to go to a beach somewhere.

  6. I would love to see these birds, the next best thing is seeing your stunning images and informative commentary

  7. Very nice shots! Love Skimmers!

  8. Thanks for the information about these unusual birds. There is something about the position of the eyes back from the beak in the black feathers that makes me want to look again…

  9. They are beautiful, what an array of Black Skimmers, thanks Mia.

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