Rarely does a bird fit its name as well as they do, and equally rarely to you find a bird at once silly and graceful, gaudy yet plain, striking yet subdued. They can be one of the more entertaining shore birds, and have a knack for being one of the most frustrating as well.
Black skimmers are primarily a seabird, resembling in appearance and habits a sort of odd tern. They are found throughout the US Gulf coast (which is great for me, since I live in the Tampa bay area) and along the Atlantic coast up as far as Cape Cod, and south through the Caribbean and into South America. They are also found along the Pacific coast in southern California, down through Central and into South America.
The adults are black above and white below, which makes for a striking, if plain contrast. However, they are adorned with bright orange webbed feet, and a monstrous black and orange bill, which they employ to great advantage in the activity for which they are named: skimming.
This is the only northern bird you’ll ever see whose lower mandible is longer than its upper mandible. The strange configuration accounts for its goofiness, and I’m often reminded of Toucan Sam of Froot Loops fame. The heavy lower jaw is put to good use when skimming, as the bird will fly close to the surface of the water, hang its head, and "skim" its lower jaw through the water. In this way, a Black Skimmer catches small fish, as well as the occasional crustacean or even small insects. As they skim, they may glide or may flap their wings – their ability to maintain their exact altitude with their jaw skimming the surface is amazing!
Black Skimmers nest in colonies along open beaches, usually in flat expanses of sand between the surf and the dunes. However, destruction of viable habitat has forced nesting on sandbars, small islands, and I’ve even heard tell of them nesting in yards and on roofs. As they sit nestled in small depressions the open sand, their striking black and white bodies provide great camouflage; from even a short distance away they look a lot like bits of shore debris.
Fledglings and juvenile Black Skimmers are not black at all, but are a mottled and speckled brown color above with white below. This perhaps provides an even better camouflage for the young birds. Fledging juveniles tend to assume the same "begging" posture observed with terns, waiting for the adults to bring them their next meal.
I have watched Black Skimmers for years, and have been photographing them – or trying to – since the advent of digital cameras. Black Skimmers have the distinct habit of flying up behind you while skimming, so you don’t notice them until it’s too late to get a good photo. Or, they start their skimming flying away from you, again frustrating your efforts. Get yourself into the proper spot and orientation to make a great capture, and suddenly, there are no skimmers skimming, they are all up on the beach "resting." Relax your guard, start daydreaming or watching something else, and suddenly there they go! Right past you, a perfect shot, if you only had the camera ready! This has become something of a running joke between my wife and me, and we believe that the Black Skimmers conspire against us. Of the thousands of shorebird photos I’ve taken, I have only maybe a dozen decent shots of skimmers skimming.
I’ll keep at it, though! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the secret to getting better shots is to observe their behavior. While Black Skimmers can be frustrating, they do follow repeating patterns with their behavior, and once you’ve found a place where skimmers are doing their thing, set up your gear and start using your best tool: patience! You’ll find that not only will skimmers follow each other with their strafing runs, but the same skimmers will circle around and skim again and again in along the same route.
Black Skimmers – Odd but enchanting; challenging, yet offering endless entertainment – for those with the patience to wait and see.