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Black Skimmer

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Black Skimmers feed on small fish by flying low over the coastal shallows with the bottom of their orange-and-black bill slicing through the water. When their bill strikes a fish, they snap it up. They are unmistakable and the only bird whose lower bill is longer than its top.

Black Skimmer
• Length: 18 inches
• Wingspan: 44 inches
• Season: Year-round
More about Black Skimmers.
Where they are, and when.

Black Skimmers are a striking black on top and white on the bottom, but in winter, they get a faint white collar around their neck. During the day, their pupils close vertically, like a cat’s, and, like a cat’s they dilate fully at night to give them good vision in the dark, when they tend to feed.

They fly in small groups like a fighter squadron, executing sharp turns and banks in unison. Look for them in Galveston in the morning, skimming between the waves along the beachfront. Because don’t rely on sight when fishing, they are able to forage at night and in the early morning hours. They generally fly with deep wing beats but when skimming hold their large wings high above the water to avoid interfering with their “run”.

Black Skimmers nest in colonies and are sensitive to intruders on their nesting grounds. In response, they are prone to shift nesting areas during the mating season.

June 21, 2008

I have to admit I was skeptical about the mechanics of skimming for fish. How could a bird flying along the water at a brisk pace react quickly enough when its bill touched a fish to snap it up? It seems like most of the time the fish would just glance off of it. But today I watched a Black Skimmer on Bolivar Flats make several runs with as much success as birds diving and stabbing at fish around it. When it hit a fish, its head dipped quickly down into the water as it snapped it up. In making its runs, it probably sliced through at least a couple of small schools.

Another issue for me was how a bird could continue to fly so quickly while dragging it’s bill through the water? The answer is, its bill has a very odd shape, which I hadn’t noticed before. From the side, it looks broad and thick, but when one flew straight toward me it looked more like sharp knife that could slice through the water with little drag.

About Scott Clark

I’m a digital journalist who’s worked as a photographer, reporter, producer and editor. My interest in the natural history of my surroundings reaches back to my early days beachcombing on the Jersey coast, rowing my boat on a quiet lake in Missouri and, more recently, discovering the mountains and backwoods of Montana, where I was born.

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