Posted tagged ‘Rynchops albicollis’

Black Skimmer

May 6, 2011

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The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is my favorite bird. It is a bird with incredible abilities. Below is a photo of a Black Skimmer that will help you see where it got the name “skimmer”:

Copyright 2010, David E. Shormann, PhD

As you can see in the photo below, the skimmer family (Rynchopidae) differs from all other bird families because their bottom mandible, or bill, is much longer than their upper mandible:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

The longer, knifelike lower mandible, or bill, helps the Black Skimmer catch fish. The base of the bill is red-orange and the tip is black. The bird flies slowly along leeward shorelines, where wave action is less pronounced, and skims its lower bill just beneath the surface. Precision flying is required to keep the bill in the water for any distance, and the relatively long wings (up to 48 inches) of the skimmer, relative to its body (16-20 inches), help it maintain a level glide. Notice the long wings in the photo below:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

When a fish hits the Black Skimmer’s lower bill, the bird’s head will automatically bend down and back, which traps the fish. The skimmer then flies up and swallows the fish. Here’s a short YouTube video by EstuaryLiveTV showing a Black Skimmer capturing a fish:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7USpTc6MUoc

If the skimmer’s fish-catching techniques are not impressive enough, consider that it also does this at night! That is why its upper surface is black, to camouflage it for night-fishing. Also, notice when its bill is open, the only color a fish that is in front of it would see is black. It would not see the orange-red section. What an incredible design!

The skimmer family, Rynchopidae, consists of only two other species, one from Africa (R. flavirostris) and the other from Asia (R. Albicollis). All skimmers look essentially the same, with slight differences in color patterns and calls. All skimmers live along rivers and estuaries, and lay their eggs on open areas like sandy beaches and shell reefs. They typically nest in colonies, often with other birds like terns. Here is a video of a small Black Skimmer colony nesting in a remote section of East Matagorda Bay in Texas. Listen for the distinct “kaup” call of the Black Skimmer, compared to the terns that are also quite vocal:

Black Skimmers, like many other bird species (and like humans are supposed to do!), mate with one individual for life. After the eggs are laid, the couple takes turns incubating them. In the following photo, the mate farthest from the camera is incubating a pair of eggs:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

According to the Outdoor Alabama website, the typical Black Skimmer clutch averages four eggs. ¬† The pair above only had two eggs, and this could be because 1) the female still had more eggs to lay, or 2) storms washed the other eggs away. Black Skimmers along the Gulf of Mexico Coast typically lay their eggs in May, and the eggs take about 3 weeks to hatch. Here is a photo of this couple’s clutch in early May, 2011:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

As you can tell, the eggs are designed to be camouflaged against their shelly background. See if you can find the same eggs in the photo below. Click on the photo to enlarge it:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

Give up? They are in the top right corner of the photo.

If you are not impressed by the incredible design of the Black Skimmer, then I’m afraid nothing will impress you! In His goodness, God made this bird incredibly special and unique. Some bird groups, a.k.a. “baramins”, like warblers, have more diversity since the Genesis Flood, but not skimmers. Three “species” (maybe not really species?) exist worldwide. Skimmers catch dinner by skimming their enlarged lower mandible through shallow water, somehow avoiding all underwater obstacles (I’ve never seen a skimmer “crash!”), and they even do it on the blackest of ¬†nights! They lay well-camouflaged eggs, and the parents, who mate for life, take turn incubating the eggs and raising the young. Awesome!

Click here for a coloring page of the Black Skimmer. Remember, the Black Skimmer is black on top, so use the thin line that is beneath the eye as your border between the black and white.