Photo: Jim Gray/Audubon Photography Awards

Priority Bird

Black Skimmer

Rynchops niger

The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal in most areas of North America, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. Unlike most birds, their eyes have vertical pupils, narrowed to slits to cut the glare of water and white sand. Flocks in flight may turn in unison, with synchronized beats of their long wings. The world's three species of skimmers are sometimes placed in their own separate family, although they are clearly related to the terns.
Conservation status In late 19th century, eggs were harvested commercially, and adults were killed for their feathers, leading to a reduction of Atlantic Coast populations; good recovery of numbers since. Still very sensitive to disturbance in nesting colonies. Range expanding in west.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Mostly ocean beaches, tidewater. Favors coastal waters protected from open surf, such as lagoons, estuaries, inlets, sheltered bays. Locally on inland lakes in Florida and at Salton Sea, California. Nests on sandy islands, beaches, shell banks. In South America, occurs far inland along major rivers.
The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal in most areas of North America, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. Unlike most birds, their eyes have vertical pupils, narrowed to slits to cut the glare of water and white sand. Flocks in flight may turn in unison, with synchronized beats of their long wings. The world's three species of skimmers are sometimes placed in their own separate family, although they are clearly related to the terns.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • juvenile
  • immature (2nd fall)
  • adult
  • breeding adult at nest with eggs
Feeding Behavior

Well-known for its skimming habit, furrowing the water with lower mandible, the upper mandible snapping down immediately when contact is made with a fish. Finds food by touch, not by sight; often forages in late evening or at night, when waters may be calmer and more fish may be close to surface. Rarely may forage by wading in very shallow water, scooping up fish.


Eggs

4-5, sometimes 3, rarely 6-7. Variable in color, whitish to buff to blue-green, marked with dark brown. Incubation is by both sexes (male may do more), 21-23 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Upper and lower mandibles of young are same length at first, so they are able to pick up food dropped on the ground by parents. Young wander in vicinity of nest after a few days; if danger threatens, may attempt to look inconspicuous by lying flat on beach, even kicking up sand to make a hollow to lie in. Able to fly at about 23-25 days.


Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Upper and lower mandibles of young are same length at first, so they are able to pick up food dropped on the ground by parents. Young wander in vicinity of nest after a few days; if danger threatens, may attempt to look inconspicuous by lying flat on beach, even kicking up sand to make a hollow to lie in. Able to fly at about 23-25 days.

Diet

Mostly fish. Feeds mostly on small fish that live just below surface of water. Also eats some small crustaceans.


Nesting

Breeds in colonies. Courtship not well studied, may involve zigzagging flight with two or more males pursuing one female. Nest site on ground on open sandy beach, shell bank, sandbar; sometimes on gravel roof. Nest is shallow scrape in sand.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Withdraws from northern part of breeding range in winter. Sometimes pushed north along coast by tropical storms, rarely driven inland. Has colonized southern California (from western Mexico) since 1960s, now nests at Salton Sea and San Diego.

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Migration

Withdraws from northern part of breeding range in winter. Sometimes pushed north along coast by tropical storms, rarely driven inland. Has colonized southern California (from western Mexico) since 1960s, now nests at Salton Sea and San Diego.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Short barking notes.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Gulls and Terns Gull-like Birds

Black Skimmer

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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Coastal Stewardship: Gulf

Coastal Stewardship: Gulf

Restoring vital coastal wetlands for colonial and beach-nesting birds

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