Field Guide to Fort Myers Beach: Black Skimmers

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Black skimmers are some goofy birds. Although incredibly graceful in the air, when they land the waddling walk they have is pretty funny to go and see. They have a call that many people say sounds exactly like a dog’s squeak toy and have a very prominent underbite to their bright orange and black bills. Their hunting method is why the bills of Black Skimmers have such a large under bite.

If anyone is interested in watching the beautiful hunting patterns of black skimmers soaring across the water skimming the surface in the search of fish the best time to go is at dawn and dusk.  However, black skimmers are normally active in the day and can be found in large numbers in the southern section of Fort Myers Beach if anyone misses the morning hunting display. When the chicks first hatch their bills are about the same length, but as the chicks grow up the lower bill keeps on growing faster than the upper so by the time they leave the nest after four weeks of care by their parents the chick’s lower bill is about one centimeter longer than the upper bill. To hunt the birds fly very close to the surface of the water hanging its lower bill into the water until it feels something that feels like a fish. Sometimes they are right, sometimes not. They eat small fish such as mullet, killifish, pipefish and herring. They typically fly in flocks and will even turn in unison. Sometimes it reminds me of the Rockettes dancing girls, their wings flapping to some unheard beat with style and grace.

Black Skimmers have another unusual trait although it is very hard to see. Unlike most birds that have round pupils, their eyes have vertical pupils. The narrowed slits help the birds to see by cutting the glare of water and white sand.  Now I’m sure the question pops up of why skimmers would need to see well on the sand. After all their hunting takes place in the water. This is true however; when black skimmers come into shore to rest, they sleep on the sand. They also are one of the few birds who nests on the sand as well. Large nesting colonies are set up with many mating couples grouped together. The mates will dig out nests by kicking sand behind them with their feet. This is why their nests are called scrapes. While they are doing this, their head, bill and tail are totally stretched out making the birds look very long and, in my opinion, very funny. It only takes a few minutes to make a nest. However they are incredibly picky with their nesting sites and will go through creating several different scrapes before they will settle on a place to lay their eggs. Black skimmers normally have four eggs. They are variable in color, whitish to buff to blue-green, marked with dark brown. Egg incubation is by both sexes with the male often doing more of the incubation. It takes about twenty-one days for the eggs to hatch. Both parents take turns in feeding the chicks. The parents bring them fish and the chicks are able to pick up food dropped on the ground by parents. After about three days the chicks leave the nest to wander around the nesting colony, still staying close to their nest. If danger threatens they will lie flat against the sand to blend in to their surroundings. It is due to this camouflage technique that I ask people who go to visit a nesting colony PLEASE watch where you step. Since the chicks’ instinct is to just stop and drop down into the sand when scared, someone could step on them. The chicks are able to fly and fully leave the nest around thirty days after hatching.

 

Rae Black
Environmental Technician
Town of Fort Myers Beach

 

Photo by Rae Blake, Audubon Society