We’re celebrating beach birds! We need YOU to help protect beach birds and their babies. Together, we can defend an important ecosystem that affects many birds and animals. Learn more about our month-long celebration of beach birds and how YOU can help on our website!
Today we’re profiling the Black Skimmer. This sizable black and white bird has a brightly colored bill and a whopping 3.5’ wingspan but only weighs in at about half a pound! Black Skimmers can be found in coastal regions along the Atlantic all the way to South America.
How can I spot a Black Skimmer?
The Black Skimmer is most easily spotted by its coloring - black back and hooded head, white forehead and belly, a short white tail, with dandy red legs and a matching large black-tipped red bill. Both male and females are similar in appearance. A trait unique to Black Skimmers is its beak with an “under bite” - meaning its lower beak mandible is longer than the upper mandible.
Click here to listen to the Black Skimmer’s short bark. The sounds of the skimmers’ call inspired famed ornithologist R. C. Murphy to describe them as "unworldly…aerial beagles.”
Another unusual behavior that skimmers exhibit regularly is the habit of lying prone on the sand. This posture with their bellies flat on the ground and their heads and necks extended in front of them, makes them look like exhausted hound dogs. So if you think a skimmer is “dead,” take a closer look. It’s probably only resting.
Where can I find Black Skimmers in North Carolina?
Black Skimmers can be found along much of North Carolina’s coast, where they will build their nests from May through July. For feeding, these birds favor coastal waters protected from open surf, such as lagoons, inlets, sheltered bays and estuaries. This summer, Black Skimmers can be seen at:
- South end of Wrightsville Beach - See them with the Beach Steward’s scopes!
- East end of Sunset Beach, where a few pairs have been spotted
After their chicks fledge in August, some may start south for northern South America and Central America, where they spend their winters. However, before migrating many spend time “staging” – lingering at inlets and other good feeding areas, where they rest, molt, and prepare for migration. In southeastern North Carolina, flocks of over 2,000 may be seen in places like Mason and Rich Inlet. Some of these individuals are likely stopping over from breeding sites farther north. By the end of November, they will be gone, but until then the wheeling flocks are a captivating sight.
What do they eat?
The skimmer got its name from a unique hunting technique where they use longer lower bill to skim. They fly low over the surface of calm water, and their lower bill skims scooping up their meal while the upper bill snaps shut to secure the catch. Skimmers mainly eat baitfish such as silversides, killifish, herring, and needlefish.
How do they raise their young?
The parents make nests right on the beach! That is why it is so important to stay away from areas marked with posts and strings at the beach. Please watch your step, limit beach driving, and keep dogs on leashes when you are around beach birds.
Black Skimmers are a social breed, nesting in colonies and flocking together outside of the nesting season. A colony can vary in size ranging from two to thousands. Skimmers are smart birds; they almost always make nests near aggressive gull and tern colonies so those loud birds can help ward predators and other disrupters.
A skimmer nest is a shallow scrape on an open beach, shell bank, sandbar, and occasionally a gravel roof. They lay three to four white, buff or blue-green eggs with brown markings. These eggs are often hard for people to see and very camouflaged on the bare sand, usually among shell fragments and scattered grass clumps. Skimmers often nest in areas frequented by people, like Wrightsville Beach, so conservation and protection efforts are very important for chicks’ survival.
The chicks hatch within about three weeks and start eating regurgitated fish dropped on the sand by their parents. When they are born, Black Skimmers’ upper and lower bills are the same length, making it easier to pick bits of food from the sand. The lower mandible will grow longer as the chick reaches adulthood. In fact, most chicks are hatched with bills that relatively shorter than their adult versions: this saves space and requires less time to develop inside the egg, which shortens the vulnerable incubation time. It takes about four weeks until the chicks are ready to fly and another couple of weeks for them to learn to become proficient fliers.
To protect their babies, the parent will “mob,” or rise up into the air, and attack intruders by swooping low and uttering the sharp, barking cry to scare off predators and humans alike.