Birds – Black Skimmer

(Rynchops nigra)

Called also: SCISSOR BILL; CUT-WATER Length—16 to 20 inches.

Male and Female—Crown of head, back of neck, and all upper parts, glossy black; forehead, sides of head and neck, and under parts white, the latter suffused with cream or pale rose in the nuptial season. Lining of wings black. Broad patch on wing, the tips of the secondaries, white; also the outer tail feathers, while the inner ones are brownish. Lower half of bill, measuring from 3.50 to 4.50 inches, is about one inch larger than upper half. Basal half of bill car-mine; the rest black. Bill rounded at the ends, and compressed like the blade of a knife. Feet carmine, with black claws.

Range—” Warmer parts of America, north on the Atlantic coast to New Jersey, and casually to the Bay of Fundy.” A. O. U. Season—May to September. Summer resident so far north as New Jersey; a transient summer visitor beyond.

Closely related as the skimmers are to both gulls and terns, it is small wonder the three species constituting this distinct family should be honored by a separate classification on account of the extraordinary bill that is their chief characteristic. ” Among the singular bills of birds that frequently excite our wonder,” says Dr. Coues, “that of the skimmers is one of the most anomalous. The under mandible is much longer than the upper, compressed like a knife-blade; its end is obtuse; its sides come abruptly together and are completely soldered; the upper edge is as sharp as the under, and fits a groove in the upper mandible; the jawbone, viewed apart, looks like a short-handled pitchfork. The upper mandible is also compressed, but less so, nor is it so obtuse at the end; its substance is nearly hollow . . . and it is freely movable by means of an elastic hinge at the forehead.”

But curious as the bill is when one examines a museum specimen, it becomes vastly more interesting to watch in active use on the Atlantic. The black skimmer, the only one that visits our continent, happily keeps close enough to shore when hunting for the small fish, shrimps, and mollusks that high tide brings near, for us to observe its operations. With leisurely, graceful flight, though with frequent flapping of its very long wings, the bird floats and balances just over the water, and as it progresses over a promising shoal teeming with living food, suddenly the lower half of the bladelike bill drops down just below the surface of the water, and with increased velocity of flight the bird literally “plows the main,” as Mr. Chapman has said, and receives a rich harvest through the gaping entrance. Thus cutting under or grazing the surface, with the fore part of its body inclined down-ward, the skimmer follows the plow into the likeliest feeding grounds, which are the estuaries of rivers, sandy shoals, inlets of creeks, the salt marshes, and around the floating “drift ” of the beaches. Though strictly maritime, it never ventures out on mid-ocean like the gulls and petrels. From Atlantic City, Cape May, and southward to Florida, the skimmer is an uncommon though likely enough sight to cause a genuine sensation when discovered at work. It is also credited with using its bill as a sort of oyster knife to open mollusks.

Flocks of skimmers come out of the tropics in May, and, like the terns, choose a sandy shore for their nesting colony, and, like the terns again, construct no proper nest for the three or four buffy white, chocolate-marked eggs that are dropped on the sand, high up on the beach, among the drift and shells. Incubating duties rest lightly with the skimmers, also, while the sun shines with generating warmth, so that the natural bedtime of the mother is all the confinement she endures unless the weather be stormy. In September the young birds are able to migrate long distances, although for several weeks after they are hatched they must be fed and tended by their parents; the only use they have for their wings during June and July, apparently, being to stretch them while basking in the sun on the beach. The voice of the skimmer, like that of the tern, is never so harsh and strident as during the nesting season.

It seems odd that birds so long and strong of wing as these should hug the coast so closely and not venture out on the open seas, until we consider the nature of their food and the probability of starvation in deep waters.