Black Skimmer

Rynchops niger
Range Map

The Black Skimmer is a specialist feeder. Though it may not look like the rest of its cousins, we consider it a proper member of the tern family. It’s a mesmerizing sight to watch these birds forage over the waters of a bay or lagoon. Especially on a calm morning or evening over still water, with wings held high so they won’t touch the water surface, leaving behind only a long “V” wake. When they contact a small fish with their bill, it snaps shut as if spring loaded, and is one of the fastest actions in nature.

These birds are members of the tern nesting community in South San Diego Bay, where it’s been my privilege to accompany biologists on their surveys during nesting seasons. Caspian Terns have a reputation for aggressiveness and attacking intruders, and caution is advised when approaching their nesting sites. I have witnessed only one blood-letting episode while in the company of my biologist friends, and it was a Black Skimmer, not a Caspian Tern, wing-whipped my friend Brian from behind, giving him a bloody ear.

From 1966 to 2015, the Black Skimmer’s numbers have decreased by 4% per year, resulting in a population reduction of 87% over that period. Authorities have designated them as a “species of high concern”. There are many obstacles to their nesting success. Perhaps the most concerning is their dependence on beach sites loved by homosapiens for recreation.

Today, science recognizes three subspecies of Black Skimmer:

  • R. n. niger breeds in North America and Mexico, and spend their winters southward to Panama.
  • R. n. cinerascens breeds in South America on the Colombian coast and east to the mouth of the Amazon River, and in western Ecuador, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. They spend winters on South America’s west coast, from Ecuador to Chile and from Panama to Trinidad and northern Brazil.
  • R. n. intercedens breeds on large rivers in eastern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and northern Argentina. They spend winters mainly on nearby coasts.

While San Diego is where most of my experience with Black Skimmers has occurred, Texas was also generous in providing meetings with these birds. South Padre Island was an especially fun location to enjoy their company.

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