What is black, white and red all over…its beak? Nope, it’s not an embarrassed penguin, but something just as wonderful: the black skimmer, an extraordinary Florida seabird with elegant tuxedo plumage and a giant candy corn-colored beak.
Scientifically known as Rynchops niger, the skimmer also has some delightful vernacular names: “Scissorbill” reflects its unique foraging style of zooming low over the water while running its outsized lower mandible just below the surface and snapping up small fish. This tactic allows the skimmer to follow its “nose” to feed at night.
“Stormgull” recalls that skimmers, who roost and nest in large groups on open beaches, are sometimes displaced by large storms, descending on new shores in the wake. But do not let its reputation fool you: Skimmers follow their hearts. After summer breeding season, individual mates go their separate ways, but the same lovebirds always find their partners when summer returns — even as Florida’s 50 or so nesting colonies move each year.
Then there is “Sea Dog,” a moniker that speaks to the cacophonous “bark” skimmers make in nesting colonies, day and night. This may explain the rather ungenerous nature of their collective nouns, which include an “embezzlement” or a “conspiracy” – I prefer a “scoop” of skimmers.
Remarkable as they are, Florida’s skimmers are a threatened species. As Dr. Beth Forys, who teaches biology at Eckerd College, explains, beachfront development has given critters such as fish crows, feral cats, and coyotes new opportunities to prey on skimmer colonies, while human (and canine) traffic on the beach can frighten chicks away from their parents or even result in crushed nests and eggs. Climate change brings stronger storms and higher seas that can wash out nesting sites, and sewage spills and algal blooms can endanger the birds’ fish supply.
“Sometimes we lose whole colonies at once,” she said. “That’s really hard.”
But Forys is also hopeful. She helps to oversee a small army of Audubon seabird stewards who work each summer to survey local beaches for nests, mark and monitor active sites, and educate beachgoers about the birds. She sees something special in skimmers.
“Here’s a species that is threatened, but could be stabilized – one that is easy to access and study, easy to get people interested in.”
A gateway bird, perhaps?
You can discover skimmers for yourself at Gulfport Beach in the evening, as well as on the Gulf beaches — just keep a respectful distance from any marked nests and don’t let your dog (or human) children chase or scare them.
Interested in stewarding opportunities? Contact Audubon Florida’s Holley Short at Holley.Short@audubon.org to learn more.