Bird O'clock

Skimming the Surface: The Fascinating Life of the Black Skimmer

The Black Skimmer is a stunning bird species that is easily recognizable by its unique appearance and distinctive feeding behavior. This fascinating bird can be found along the coastlines of North, Central, and South America.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages, and molts of the Black Skimmer.


Field Identification

The Black Skimmer is a medium-sized bird with a black and white plumage. Its distinctive bill features a lower mandible that is elongated and lower than the upper mandible.

This adaptation enables the bird to skim the water’s surface in search of small fish and other aquatic creatures. In flight, the Black Skimmer is easily identifiable by its erratic, skimming flight pattern, with its lower bill slicing through the water’s surface.

The bird’s wingspan is approximately 3.5 feet, and it has a black cap and back, white underparts, and a distinctive white collar.

Similar Species

One of the species which can be confused with the Black Skimmer is the Common Tern. The Common Tern has a similar size and shape and is also found along coastal regions.

However, the Common Tern has a more slender bill and lacks the distinctive black cap or collar. Another species that may be mistakenly identified as a Black Skimmer is the Black Tern.

However, unlike the Black Skimmer, the Black Tern has a more delicate bill and a dark, overall black plumage.


The Black Skimmer has two primary plumages, known as the breeding and non-breeding plumages.

Breeding plumage: During the breeding season, the bird’s black cap extends down the neck, and the bird gains more stark black and white feathers on its back and wings. The white collar that encircles the neck is more distinctive.

Non-breeding plumage: During the non-breeding season, the black cap that previously extended down the neck disappears, and the bird becomes more uniform in color. The white collar also fades at this point.


The Black Skimmer undergoes two molts each year, known as the pre-basic molt and the pre-alternate molt. The pre-basic molt occurs after the breeding season, where the bird sheds its worn-out feathers and grows new ones for the non-breeding season.

During this molt, the bird may appear patchy or disheveled as it loses old feathers and awaits new ones to take their place. The pre-alternate molt occurs right before the breeding season.

During this time, the bird develops its bright breeding plumage in preparation for their breeding display.


The Black Skimmer is a fascinating bird species with a unique appearance and behavior. Its distinctive bill and feeding style make it easily identifiable, making it a favorite of bird lovers and enthusiasts.

By understanding its identification, plumages, and molts, we can increase our appreciation of this remarkable bird species.

Systematics History

The Black Skimmer, scientific name Rynchops niger, has been known to scientists and bird watchers for over 200 years. It was originally described in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician, who is often referred to as the father of modern taxonomy.

However, the taxonomy of the Black Skimmer has been under revision several times since its initial description.

Geographic Variation

The Black Skimmer is a widespread bird species, found in marine and freshwater habitats along the coasts of North, Central, and South America. Its geographic variation is not significant, with most populations resembling each other in terms of their size, plumage, and behavior.

However, some populations differ slightly from one another in terms of their size and coloration, and this has led to the identification of several subspecies.


There are four recognized subspecies of the Black Skimmer, based on their geographic distribution and subtle morphological differences. R.

n. niger (Nominate): This subspecies is found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, breeding from southern New Jersey to northern South America.

R. n.

cinerascens: This subspecies is found along the Pacific coast of North and South America, breeding from California to Peru. R.

n. intercedens: This subspecies is found in the Caribbean region, including Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola.

R. n.

helveticus: This subspecies is found along the Pacific coast of South America, breeding from Peru to Chile. The differences between these subspecies are subtle, with the nominate subspecies possessing a slightly larger body and longer wings than other subspecies.

The other subspecies have differences in size and coloration, such as darker upperparts and brighter white underparts in the R. n.

cinerascens and R. n.


Related Species

The Black Skimmer belongs to the family Rynchopidae, which includes three other species:

– African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris)

– Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicollis)

– South American Skimmer (Rynchops superciliosus)

All these species belong to the “skimmer” group of birds, known for their unique feeding behavior. However, each species has specific differences in its morphology, plumage, and geographic range.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The distribution of the Black Skimmer has undergone significant changes over the last few centuries. In the late 19th century, the species experienced a decline in its population due to egg harvesting and hunting for their feathers.

This decline continued into the 20th century, resulting in a decrease in their breeding range and overall population. However, the conservation efforts made in the 20th century sparked a resurgence in the Black Skimmer’s population, and their breeding range expanded to new locations.

A significant example of this is the bird’s restoration in the Florida Keys, where a reintroduction program has led to a successful recovery of the species. The conservation efforts carried out by environmental organizations, including habitat restoration and conservation of breeding sites, have been instrumental in stabilizing the distribution of the Black Skimmer.

The bird’s recovery is an excellent example of how conservation efforts can reverse the decline of an endangered species.


In summary, the Black Skimmer is a fascinating bird species that has undergone significant changes in its taxonomy, distribution, and population over the last few centuries. The bird’s subspecies have distinctive features that enable scientists to differentiate them from each other, despite their similarity.

The resurgence in the bird’s population is a testament to the importance of conservation efforts in protecting and preserving endangered species.


The Black Skimmer is a bird species that inhabits various types of habitats, including marine and freshwater habitats along the coasts of North, Central, and South America. The bird prefers shallow water areas, including beaches, estuaries, lagoons, and rivers that provide an abundant food supply in the form of small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates.

The Black Skimmer is known for its unique feeding behavior, which involves skimming the water surface with its bill lowered, resulting in a snapping motion that catches small prey. Owing to this behavior, the bird is often found in areas where there is a lot of fish.

Movements and Migration

The Black Skimmer is a largely sedentary bird species, with most populations remaining in their breeding and non-breeding territories throughout the year. However, some populations show limited movements and migrations in response to seasonal variations in food availability or weather conditions.

In North America, Black Skimmers are known to move southwards during the winter months, although this is typically only for short distances. The Black Skimmer is a species that is not known for long-range movements or migrations, with individuals usually inhabiting their territory throughout their lives.

One population that is known for its extensive migration is the Black Skimmer in South America. During the non-breeding season, these birds move northwards from Peru and Chile to Ecuador and Colombia in search of suitable feeding grounds.

The distances covered by these South American Black Skimmers are relatively short in comparison to the migrations carried out by other bird species. Throughout their range, Black Skimmers are known to make local movements in response to environmental changes, such as the changing availability of food resources.

Local movements may be seasonal, such as the movement of birds from coastal areas to inland lakes during dry seasons when food resources are scarce. The movements and migrations of Black Skimmers are not well documented, as this bird is not a primary target of migration studies.

However, the scientific community continues to learn more through ringing, banding, and tracking data.


In summary, the Black Skimmer is a bird species that is known for its unique feeding behavior and inhabits a wide range of shallow water habitats along the coasts of North, Central, and South America. The bird species is largely sedentary, with most individuals remaining in their breeding and non-breeding territories throughout the year.

However, some populations show limited movements and migrations in response to changes in food availability or environmental conditions. The movement and migratory patterns of the Black Skimmer are not well-documented, but ongoing studies continue to provide insights into the behavior and biology of this fascinating bird species.

Diet and Foraging


The Black Skimmer is unique among the bird species with its distinctive feeding behavior. The bird captures its prey by flying low over the water surface with its lower mandible submerged.

Upon encountering a prey, the bird snaps its long mandible shut, in a precise and lightning-fast movement, capturing the fish or aquatic invertebrate between its tips. This feeding behavior is fascinating to observe, and it is common to see several Black Skimmers flying low over the water surface skimming for food.

The bird is most active during dawn and dusk periods, coinciding with times of the highest prey availability.


The Black Skimmer is a piscivorous bird species, which means its primary diet consists of small fish. The fish species that the bird feeds on varies depending on the bird’s location and the availability of prey.

Some of the fish species that the Black Skimmer consumes include mullet, silversides, herring, anchovy, and sand eels. However, the Black Skimmer does not solely rely on fish for its diet.

The bird also feeds on aquatic invertebrates, including crustaceans, insects, and marine worms.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Black Skimmer, like other bird species, has a high metabolic rate. This high metabolism helps the bird to maintain its body temperature and keep warm in cold environments.

The bird also uses its circulatory system to transfer heat from its core to the extremities, such as the legs, to keep these areas warm. The Black Skimmer can also regulate its body temperature by adjusting its body position or location.

During hot weather, the bird may move to the shade or immerse its body in the water to keep cool. In contrast, during cold weather, the bird may huddle together with other birds or fluff up its feathers to trap warm air close to its body.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The vocalizations of the Black Skimmer are not particularly well-known or studied, mainly because the bird is more visually distinctive than acoustically. However, the bird has a few vocalization types that it uses for communication.

The Black Skimmer’s primary vocalization is a series of short, barking calls, which serve as contact notes for bird to bird communication. These calls are typically short, sharp, and repeated in a rapid-fire sequence.

The bird also makes a variety of other sounds depending on its mood or intended communication. For example, during the breeding season, the bird may make a longer and more complex vocalization to attract a mate or defend its territory.

Despite its limited vocalizations, the Black Skimmer is still able to communicate with other birds effectively. This is because the bird species uses visual cues and body language to supplement its vocalizations, which provides more feedback and response between individuals.


In summary, the Black Skimmer is a unique bird species known for its fascinating feeding behavior and highly developed sensory systems. It is primarily a piscivorous bird species, but it also feeds on a variety of other aquatic invertebrates.

The bird’s vocalizations are limited, but it uses visual cues and body language to supplement its calls, allowing for effective communication with other birds. The high metabolic rate and effective body thermoregulation allow the Black Skimmer to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions.



The Black Skimmer is a remarkable bird species, well adapted to its aquatic habitat. The bird has several unique behaviors and adaptations that aid in its locomotion in the air, on the water’s surface, and underwater.

The Black Skimmer is an excellent flier, with long, narrow wings and a streamlined body. In flight, the bird’s wings are held partially upward, creating a distinct V-shape.

This posture helps the bird to glide effortlessly over the water surface, conserving energy during its search for prey. On the water, the Black Skimmer paddles with its feet to maintain balance, using its wings to stabilize its body’s position.

Underwater, the bird uses its wings to push itself deeper into the water to chase prey.

Self Maintenance

Like other bird species, the Black Skimmer invests significant amounts of time in self-maintenance, including preening and bathing. Preening is when the bird cleans and oils its feathers to maintain feather quality, allowing for the proper insulation and waterproofing of their plumage.

Bathing is another important self-maintenance behavior, and birds use water to clean their feathers, often fluffing them outwards to soak up more water before shaking themselves vigorously to remove any dirt or grime.

Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior is the display of aggression typically used in bird species during territorial disputes or mating competition. The Black Skimmer’s agonistic behavior includes visual displays, posturing, and vocalizations.

During territorial disputes, the Black Skimmer will defend its territory, diving at other birds or displaying a raised bill to intimidate the intruder. When competing for mates, the birds will posture themselves differently, with males swelling or puffing themselves up to appear larger.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, the Black Skimmer engages in complex sexual behaviors. The males initiate courtship displays, with various movements involving head, tail, and wing movements, as well as vocalizations.

If successful, the male will present the female with a gift of a small fish, shell, or plant material. After copulation, the female will lay between one to six eggs, which both parents incubate for 20 to 25 days.

Once hatched, the chicks are precocial, which means they are mobile from hatching and can walk and feed themselves. The parents will continue to feed, protect and nurture their chicks for several weeks until the young are able to fend for themselves.


The Black Skimmer’s breeding season varies depending on location. In North America, the breeding season typically begins in May and lasts until August, while in South America, breeding can begin as late as November.

The breeding pair will build a nest of scraped sand or gravel on a beach or a river sandbank. During the breeding season, the Black Skimmer becomes territorial, defending its nesting area from other birds or predators.

The birds use various means to defend their nests, such as raising their wings and vocalizing to alert other birds of potential danger.

Demography and Populations

The Black Skimmer population remains stable overall, thanks to conservation efforts to protect the bird’s nesting, resting, and feeding grounds. The bird species is considered a threatened species in some areas and is listed on international conservation Red Data Lists.

Populations are at risk due to habitat loss and disturbance from human activities, such as beach development and water pollution. Conservation efforts include habitat protection, restoration of important feeding grounds, and reduced harassment at nesting sites.


The Black Skimmer is a bird species with remarkable behaviors adapted to its unique aquatic environment. Its sophisticated self-maintenance behaviors and complex agonistic and sexual behaviors make this species both unique and fascinating.

The breeding season and territorial behaviors add to the overall character of the Black Skimmer, and the species highlights the importance of conservation efforts in protecting threatened bird populations. The Black Skimmer is a fascinating bird species with unique adaptations and behaviors that make it a favorite among bird watchers and conservationists alike.

From its distinctive feeding behavior to its sophisticated self-maintenance actions, the bird has evolved to thrive in its aquatic environment. The species is a remarkable example of the interplay between behavior and environment, highlighting the importance of conservation efforts in preserving not just the species but the habitats and ecosystems they inhabit.

The Black Skimmer’s overall resilience and adaptability demonstrate the power of conservation and the positive impact it can have on threatened and endangered wildlife populations.

Popular Posts