Black Skimmer Life History


Habitat ShorelinesLook for Black Skimmers on open sandy beaches, on gravel or shell bars with sparse vegetation, or on mats of sea wrack (tide-stranded debris) in saltmarsh. Skimmers are occasionally seen at inland lakes such as the Salton Sea of California. Much of this species' original beach habitat has been developed as houses and attractions for beachgoers. Particularly in the southeastern U.S., artificial islands made from dredge spoils are an important nesting habitat for this and other species.Back to top


Food FishFeeds on small fish up to about 5 inches in length, including herring, killifish, mullet, and pipefish. Also may consume small crustaceans. Black Skimmers may travel 5 miles from their breeding colony in search of food.Back to top


Nest Placement

Nest GroundBlack Skimmers are colonial seabirds that nest in groups, often with other species such as Laughing Gulls and Common, Least, or Gull-billed Terns. Look for colonies on beaches, gravel or shell bars, dredge deposition islands, saltmarshes, and rooftops.

Nest Description

Mates take turns scraping, using an exaggerated posture (with the neck, head, bill, and tail raised) kicking sand behind them with alternating foot strokes. They then rotate in their scrape to create a saucer-shaped depression, similar to resting scrapes used throughout the year. The depression takes only a few minutes to create, but the process of nesting may involve several scrapes. Males do more scraping and make larger scrapes than females. The average scrape is 10 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.

Nesting Facts
Egg Length:0.6-0.8 in (1.6-2 cm)
Egg Width:0.5-0.6 in (1.2-1.5 cm)
Incubation Period:21-25 days
Nestling Period:28-30 days
Egg Description:Pale cream, white, greenish, or pinkish spotted with dark brown to black.
Condition at Hatching:Almost helpless, covered in tan down. Chicks can soon stand and move around, but parents must feed them for 3-4 weeks after hatching
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Behavior Aerial ForagerThe Black Skimmer has one of the most unusual foraging styles of any North American bird. A feeding skimmer flies low over the water with its bill open and its lower mandible slicing the surface. When the mandible touches a fish, the upper bill (maxilla) snaps down instantly to catch it. Skimmers are highly social birds, nesting in colonies and forming large flocks outside the breeding season. Large, successful colonies usually occupy the same site from year to year, while small or failed colonies usually relocate.Back to top


Conservation DecliningBlack Skimmers are not federally protected, but they are on several state lists, ranging from endangered in New Jersey to special concern in North Carolina and Florida. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that populations significantly declined between 1966 and 2015. The species rates a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. The North American waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a North American population of 65,000-70,000 breeding birds, and list them as a Species of High Concern. The main threat to skimmers in modern times is development or other loss of their beach-nesting habitat, since they nest on exactly the kinds of beaches that people like to vacation on. In addition to habitat loss, skimmer nests can be destroyed by roaming dogs and by vehicles that are allowed to drive on beaches. In the nineteenth century, a major cause of Black Skimmer declines was from hunting and the collecting of eggs. Egging used to be a commercial activity, and people reported colony sizes in terms of the number of bushels of eggs they would produce. Because Black Skimmers nest very close to the water's edge and feed from the water surface, they were among the species of greatest concern during the 2010 BP oil spill. By the end of that year, 263 Black Skimmers had been collected during the oil spill response. Back to top


Gochfeld, Michael and Joanna Burger. 1994. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA. 

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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