At a Glance
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.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Gull-like Birds, Gulls and Terns
Coasts and Shorelines, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Mid Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Texas
Direct Flight, Flap/Glide, Soaring
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
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.
18" (46 cm). Black above, white below, with lower mandible much longer than upper. Long wings make resting bird look like long, low, black triangle. Juveniles browner above but still unmistakable.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Orange, White
Broad, Long, Pointed, Tapered
Songs and Calls
Short barking notes.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Mostly fish. Feeds mostly on small fish that live just below surface of water. Also eats some small crustaceans.
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.
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.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Black Skimmer. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Black Skimmer
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.