Black Skimmers in St. Pete Beach

20160430-IMG_0171 This weekend brings a very cool, unique bird. It's easy to identify, unmistakable actually. Look for the world's most pronounced underbite and three striking hues (black, white, and red-orange). The Black Skimmer.

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As you might have guessed, skimmers are close relatives of gulls and terns. There are only 3 types of skimmers in the world: Black, African, and Indian. The Black Skimmer is the largest of the three measuring 41 - 46 cm in length (16 - 18 inches) with a mass of 232 - 374 grams (0.5 - 0.8 pounds).

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Black Skimmers eat mostly fish: silversides, killifish, minnows, mullet, anchovies, menhaden, and mollies. They also don't mind the odd shrimp. But the way in which they take their prey is far more interesting. Fish are caught exclusively by one method and that is to skim the very top of the water with the lower portion of the bill or mandible, hence the underbite. Once the skimmer feels its bill contact a fish, it snaps its head all the way under its breast forming a backwards "C" with its neck. This allows the skimmer to firmly grasp the prey, which it then swallows during flight.

If you're interested in watching this display, you might have a very short window at dusk. Black Skimmers do much of their foraging in the dark. Some populations use the waning light levels as a cue to go fishing. Because they are doing most of their hunting in the dark, we know that prey location is guided by tactile rather than visual cues. How impressive. Also, small fish like anchovies forage closer to the shoreline at night which lessens the travel requirement (thus, energy expenditure) for skimmers.

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While in St. Pete Beach, I was lucky enough to witness some mating behavior. Black Skimmers do a sort of bowing dance to one another before mating.

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They lay 3-4 eggs in a simple depression in the sand or other substrate and incubate for just under a month. Nestlings are fed by both parents and leave the nest to walk around ~1 week after they hatch. They stick around with mom and dad for about a month and then begin their lives as adults.

They have 4 main predators: gulls, foxes, raccoons, and weasels (especially in breeding colonies).

So where can you find them? Much of South America, Mexico in the winter, and the southern and eastern coasts of the United States. The Black Skimmers pictured in this post were experiencing a hot morning in St. Pete Beach, FL. Their solution to the weather was to play dead. Or that's what it looked like anyway.

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Come back Wednesday for more...you guessed it...birds!