Black Skimmer

by Kyle D. Sweet, CGCS

The Black Skimmer, a long-winged bird with stark white and black plumage, is a favorite here on our barrier islands on the beaches, on golf course lakes and open marshes.

The Black Skimmer is one of only three species of skimmers on earth that feed in flight by opening their bill and dropping the long, narrow mandible into the water, skimming just below the water surface until they feel a fish. When they do, the quickly close their jaw, whipping the fish out of the water and grabbing their meal.

Their diet consists mostly of small fish that live just below the surface of the water. Additionally, they occasionally feed on small crustaceans.

They are distributed all along the coastal Southeastern United States as well as coastal California, coastal Central America and all throughout the South American Continent. Being highly social, they roost and breed in colonies that can include thousands of pairs. Successful colonies often return to the same nest sites each year, usually on sandy or rocky beaches.

Black Skimmers are ground nesters, nesting in what is called a “scrape” in the sand. This depression, made by both of the mating pair, is typically 10” wide and only about an inch in depth. Due to their ground nesting, parents much be very vigilant as both eggs and young are susceptible to predators. Both the mating pair incubate the eggs and share in the regurgitation feeding of the young. When young, the mandibles are the same sized, which allows the young to pick up food that is dropped by the parents for feeding. As they grow, the lower mandible grows beyond the top one and at around 25 days old, they are able to take flight.

Without a doubt, the Black Skimmer exhibits effortless, precision flight and is simply a joy to watch. They’ve been known to fly very close to people near or in the water while feeding, but as with all shorebirds and our resident birds in general, it’s best to enjoy from a distance. Respect the flocks of skimmers that will congregate on our beaches throughout the year by not causing the flock to take flight by walking too close or allowing your dog to flush them from their perch.

Get out to the calm waters early or take a few minutes after sunset to catch a glimpse of the Black Skimmer in action. Enjoy!

The Four Keys to ID

1. Size and Shape – Medium – sized seabird with long wings and a bill where which the lower mandible is much longer than the upper.
2. Color Pattern – Black above and white below with a black and red bill and orange-red legs
3. Behavior – Usually fly very low to the water with long upstrokes and short downstrokes, creating a bounding characteristic to their flight.
4. Habitat – Coastal beaches and islands near oceans or the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes seen inland in Florida as well.


Throughout North America, the Black Skimmer has been called by many names, including Seadog, Razorbill and Cutwater

The Black Skimmer is most active at dawn and dusk and will also hunt nocturnally. When skimming the water, it uses touch to catch fish which makes it successful at feeding in the low light or darkness. Often, these times provide for the calmest waters for the skimmer.

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