Monday, January 31, 2011

Black Skimmer

Highly gregarious and ultra-cool, a squadron of Black Skimmers rests on a Florida sandbar.

At ease, skimmers look like grounded F-14 fighter jets. When the pack takes to the air, they are transformed into a gracefully coordinated body of long-winged birds that commands one's eye. Moving in sinuous columns, the skimmers put on quite the airshow.

When seen up close, a Black Skimmer takes on a comical appearance, what with the orange-based Bozo bill. They also look faintly thuggish; like an avian tough wearing a black hoodie pulled low over the eyes.

Hold your thumb over the bill and temporarily block it from view, and the bird looks long, sleek, and ternlike. Expose the bill, and the skimmer takes on an undeniably odd and amusing look. It's as if its beak is deformed. But it isn't - the skimmer offers evidence of the miraculous possibilities wrought by fits and spurts of evolution; how forces of selection can shape such strange-looking features that are so beautifully functional.

A Black Skimmer's normal working environment: inches off the water. This one appears to be scolding its reflection in a fishy backwater marsh. Agile and adept at close-quarter high-speed flight operations, skimmers swoosh low over the deck like barn-storming feathered crop dusters.

And here's how they get the skimmer tag. Swooshing towards the water in a graceful descent, the Black Skimmer gently lowers that elongated lower mandible into the water and slices a long wake.


Fish. In an amazing show of aeronautics, reaction time, and coordination, the skimmer sluices along, hoping to come into contact with a minnow or other small aquatic animal. When contact is made, it snaps that powerful thick bill shut in a nanosecond and secures a meal.

Pretty amazing stuff.


rebecca said...

I love these guys! Last fall there were tons of them on the beach here in south Georgia, though they seem to have moved elsewhere for the time being.

Cathy said...

Great pictures. Makes me wish I were in Florida. Particularly because NW Ohio is going to get hammered in the next couple days.

These birds have always intrigued me. And I'm curious. You state: "When contact is made, it snaps that powerful thick bill shut . ."

Yes, but I've always wondered by what mechanism? Is it strictly mechanical (like a mousetrap being sprung) or is there a sensory component that triggers the bill-snapping in the way that the patellar reflex is elicited by the doctor's hammer.

I guess I'm over-working this, but watching those birds trolling effectively in the dusk - always amazed me.

LauraHinNJ said...

Ah... so that's where they all go in the winter! (Though one was in Cape May through December this year.)

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This is one of my favorite birds. I will never forget seeing one here in IN. We were alerted that it was in our area. When we found it it was lying on the ground flat out. I thought it was dead because I had never seen a bird that big just go flat out on the ground. When we approached it it popped up. I have since seen them lying on the ground like that in several places. But this occasion was the first.

Wes said...

Jim I am wondering what beach did you go to see these amazing birds? This is my nemesis bird, I have gone to Florida, Texas and Massachusetts and have never been able to locate them. I will be leaving for Florida soon and would like to add them to my list. If you have any other suggestions you can email me at Thank you.

Fixed Carbon said...

I loved these birds during my time in Florida. Don't see many in northern Calif.

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Cathy,

I don't know the exact mechanism that allows skimmers to rapidly clamp down on prey, but it is apparently a tactile response triggered by contact with prey. Supposedly the Wood Stork has the fastest tested response time in terms of reacting to prey touching the bill, but it's hard to imagine they could much if any quicker than a skimmer.

Jim McCormac said...


Google up Bunche Beach, which is just outside of Cape Coral and near the bridge to Sanibel Island. Walk the beach, and I'll guarantee you'll see skimmers. That's where I made some of those photos.

You'll also find lots of other cool birds there. Burrowing Owls can be seen in Cape Coral; look under the comments on my post on them and you'll see directions to an easy spot to find them.

Cathy said...

Ah. Thanks Jim. Tactile.
Feels right . .

(Get it? Tactile?)

I'll stop now and go chip away at some more driveway ice.