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Wondering About Skimmers

Dear Bird Folks,

Last evening I overheard some people say that they were going out to look for “skimmers.” I was too embarrassed to ask them what skimmers are, so I just ignored them. But now I’m wondering what they were going to see. Could skimmers be some kind of bird?

Connie, West Dennis


You Go Connie,

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who likes to eavesdrop. The “skimmers” those people were referring to were either birds or the politicians in charge of the Big Dig in Boston. For the sake of this column, let’s assume we are talking about the group of birds called skimmers.

Black skimmers are one of the most unusual birds in the world. They look a bit like large black and white terns, but it is their odd method of feeding that makes skimmers so unusual. Skimmers fly over open water with their lower beak dragging in the water. Their beaks slice through the water like a shark’s fin, creating a wake as they go. When they “feel” a small fish or other aquatic life touch their beak, they snap it up and chow it down while they continue to fly. And they often do this at night. That’s right, in the dark.

Let’s review. The skimmer flies over the open water, mostly in the dark, dragging its beak in the water hoping to bump into a random fish. If it happens to hit said fish, it somehow is able to react quickly enough to snap its beak shut to catch it and never misses a wing beat. Wow! Now that’s impressive.

The skimmer’s scientific name, “Rynchops niger,” comes from the Greek meaning (and I am not making this up) “beak face.” That’s right, beak face. I guess we can understand why they like to come out after dark. Actually, the real reason why they hunt in the evening is the wind usually dies down thus making for calmer water. Since skimmers don’t find food visually, the lack of light doesn’t bother them at all.

Skimmers are the only bird in the world whose lower beak (mandible) is longer than the top. To give you an idea of how odd the skimmer’s beak is, try this. When no one else is looking, stick out your middle finger. No wait, I’ve got a better idea, flash the peace sign (or the victory sign if you are over 60), that will be safer. Then close your two fingers together like you are pointing. Now look at your two fingers. If you have done it right (don’t be afraid to ask for help) your middle finger should be on the bottom sticking out further than your top index finger. That is what a skimmer’s beak looks like. Just imagine trying to catch a fish with those two fingers.

Here on the Cape we are lucky to have a few pairs of nesting skimmers every summer. And the last I knew, Cape Cod was the furthest north a black skimmer has ever nested. So all those creeps up in northern New England can yap all they want about their loons and puffins, we have skimmers, one of the coolest birds ever invented.

So the next time you hear people talking about going to see skimmers, Connie, I think you should invite yourself to go with them. You just may see one of the most amazing feeding behaviors in the animal kingdom. But then again I’m impressed with anyone who can use chop sticks, so what do I know.