Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Species Spotlight: Black Skimmer

The amazing Black Skimmer is the subject of this week's species spotlight. The Black Skimmer is the only American representative of the skimmer family. The other two, rather similar, species are the African Skimmer and the Indian Skimmer. All use the same unusual feeding method. The remarkable bill of the Black Skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large red and black bill is knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The bird drags the lower bill through the water as it flies along, hoping to catch small fish.

A feeding Black Skimmer by Dan Pancamo

Black Skimmers are primarily a coastal species that breed in loose colonies on sandy beaches. Florida’s skimmers include resident populations as well as individuals that migrate from the north during the winter. Nesting skimmers can be found widely scattered along much of Florida’s coastline. In 2003 all the southernmost known nesting of the species on Florida’s Atlantic coast occurred on rooftops. They now occupy both rooftops and beaches on the southwest coast, including the largest colony reported in the state in 2010 consisting of 450 pairs. Unlike Least Terns, Black Skimmers nesting on rooftops generally have poor success or fail completely.

ARKive video - Black skimmer with chick

At hatching, the two mandibles of a young Black Skimmer are equal in length, but by fledging at four weeks, the lower mandible is already nearly 1 cm longer than the upper. Skimmer chicks are almost helpless, covered in tan down. They can soon stand and move around, but parents must feed them for 3-4 weeks after hatching. Black Skimmers may travel 5 miles from their breeding colony in search of food (mostly fish) for their chicks. Repeated flushing off nests and eggs by human recreational disturbance can result in thermal stress for developing eggs and chicks, especially as skimmers are slow to return to nesting sites following disturbance.

Black Skimmer chicks by Dan Pancamo

Black skimmers, along with other beach-nesting species, are a highly vulnerable species and population declines will continue without conservation measures to protect nesting habitats. Recreational activity, shoreline hardening, mechanical raking, oiling of adults or breeding areas following spills, beach driving, and increased presence of domestic animals are all examples of human-induced negative impacts to coastal habitats critical to roosting and breeding skimmers. You can help shore birds like the Black Skimmer. How? Follow the guidelines in this FWC brochure.

flock of Black Skimmers by Larry Lynch
Although the Black Skimmer is active throughout the day, it is largely crepuscular (active in the dawn and dusk) and even nocturnal. Its use of touch to catch fish lets it be successful in low light or darkness. Here is one feeding as the sun comes up at St Marks NWR.
Black Skimmer feeding at dawn by Andy Wraithmell
Although gregarious at all seasons the Black Skimmers are especially so in the fall and winter, when they gather in large flocks, flying in close formation, or roosting in dense masses on the sand bars or beaches. It is only when they are feeding that they are scattered out over the shoals.
A resting flock of Black Skimmers by Andy Wraithmell
Black Skimmers are declining and their future rests firmly in our hands. With the right conservation measures and help from the public they can thrive in Florida. Please help the FWC and its partners to conserve this unique bird.
For more information on the FWC's Black Skimmer Biological Review Status Report CLICK HERE.
For more information on how YOU can help conserve Black Skimmers CLICK HERE.
thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology & BBC Natural History Unit for text and video.

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