Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Black Skimmer

There are three species of skimmer, formerly known as scissorbills (for good reason). They have uneven bills, with a lower mandible longer than the upper mandible, which look like scissors. The bill allows them to fly low over the water and use the lower mandible to skim the surface of the water and snap up fish. The three species of skimmers belong to the genus Rynchops. In addition to the black skimmer, subject of this post, there is an African skimmer and an Asian skimmer.

The black skimmer (Rynchops niger) has three subspecies: (a) R. n. niger, the nominate subspecies, which I saw, which breeds on the Atlantic coast of North America and in the Pacific from southern California to Ecuador; (b) R. n. cinerescens, which breeds in northern and northeastern South America and the Amazon basin; and (c) R. n. intercedens, found on the rest of the Atlantic coast of South America south to central Argentina. 
Black skimmer range map from Wikipedia: (a) light blue is nonbreeding (not seeing any of that); (b) orange is breeding; (c) yellow is migration (not seeing any of that); and (d) purple is year-round. Where we were, in southern Texas, is purple. 
While breeding, they have a black crown, nape and upper body. The forehead and underparts are white. The upper wings are black with white on the rear edge. The tail and rump are dark gray with white edges. The two black skimmers in the photo are near a brown pelican. 
We saw R. n. niger in southern Texas, east of Brownsville on sand spits in the lagoon between Port Isabel and South Padre Island. We were taking photos from a motorboat in the water. 

These two black skimmers are near a laughing gull. The base of the bill is red and the balance is black. Not seen in my photos is a cat-like vertical pupil, unique for a bird. 
There were relatively few of them in comparison to the brown pelicans, Caspian terns and royal terns we were seeing. 
These 3 black skimmers are a little blurry, but the one at left front gives the best illustration of the longer lower mandible. 
It is a unique and beautiful bird I would love to see again and get photos of it flying and skimming across the water. 
This is the best photo of the red legs. 


  1. Considering they normally are down south it was cool to be able to see them.

  2. They kind of remind me of a toucan--weird proportions and startling colors.