Black Skimmer

One of the perks of my summer job is its proximity to the ocean. Since I live in Indiana, having the opportunity to go to the beach after work and on weekends is a real treat! Whenever I go, there are always lots of families. The parents soak up the sun’s rays while their children build sandcastles, collect shells, and play in the waves.

Nearby, there are other families tending to their young and caring for their homes. During one of my weekend jaunts, the Black Skimmers I captured in this photo were putting the final touches on their depression in the sand, while they were battling another couple for that prime nesting location. Dozens of other Skimmer pairs were likewise perfecting their indentations just a few feet away.

If I wait around long enough, I typically see Skimmers whenever I go to the beach. Their behavior makes them difficult to miss. A Skimmer will fly just barely above the ocean’s surface, with its bill open like a pair of scissors and the lower mandible slicing through the water. Viewed from the front, the bill is razor thin at the tip and widens at the base. The lower mandible is noticeably longer than the upper mandible, and it gives one the impression that the bird is suffering from some sort of injury, defect, or mutation to its bill. But that bill design serves an important purpose: the lower mandible acts as a sort of scoop and sieve, while the upper mandible acts as a trap door that slams shut as soon as a fish is scooped into the lower mandible.

I have very few photos of Skimmers, mostly because I have a point-and-shoot camera that is not designed for moving subjects. Most Skimmers that I see are skimming, not standing, and since they fly quite fast and are at the water’s surface, it is rare that my camera can focus on the bird. On this day, however, the Skimmers were happily spending time on the beach making their nest perfect for their soon-to-be clutch.

Cornell posted a fantastic video of Black Skimmer chicks begging their parents for food. In the video you’ll note that the upper and lower mandibles of the chicks are about the same size. As the chicks get older, the length of the lower mandible will quickly surpass that of the upper mandible so that the chicks will be able to skim for and catch their own fish more efficiently. The video can be seen here:


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