Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Observed on Ocracoke: The Black Skimmer

Black Skimmers _PS_IMG_7351

Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich

The North Carolina coastline is home to about 25 species of colonial nesting water birds. Along the Ocracoke beach during the spring and summer, especially around two hours after the high tide cycle, as well as in the early morning and evening you should be able to see a large long-winged black and white seabird with a prominent reddish bill gliding low just in front of the breakers.  This is a Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger); one of a family (Rynchopidae in the order Charadriiformes) of only three world-wide species. It is related to the terns and gulls that can be found around the island. Its feathered appearance: long wings, black back and head and white under parts are not what make this a unique and fascinating bird.  What is remarkable is its bill.  Even without the aid of binoculars, you may be able to notice that the lower mandible is about one third longer than the upper mandible. This unique structure is ideal for its foraging technique of skimming the surface for small fish and crustaceans.  When the lower mandible touches a fish, the upper bill (maxilla) snaps down and instantly to catches it.

The habitat for these birds in North Carolina is coastal, so you should not expect to see them inland unless in a rare instance such as being blown in by a major storm. For example, in 1996 after Hurricane Fran, skimmers appeared flying around Jordan Lake in the Triangle area. In the east, their range these days is primarily from the mid-Atlantic and southward including the Gulf Coast and Mexico.  The explorer, Samuel de Champlain, however, described seeing skimmers on Cape Cod in July of 1605 and records of nesting in Massachusetts were reported until about 1830. It is believed that these colonies were eliminated by egg collectors. Nesting colonies in small numbers began to return to New England in the 1950s.  Skimmers usually nest within tern colonies, especially with Common Terns.  Both the eggs and nestlings are pale with spots so that they blend in with sand.  Successful nesting of Black Skimmers on the Outer Banks has declined in recent years.

Another fascinating feature about skimmers is that they are the only known birds to have pupils capable of being narrowed to vertical slits as one would see in the eyes of a cat. It is believed that this may help protect the retina from damage during their feeding activities when light reflection can be very strong.

These birds are stealthy. Many times I have stood on the beach waiting for them to fly by to photograph.  Even being moderately attentive yet still enjoying the beach, there have been several instances when they suddenly appear seemingly out of the blue and, in spite of my camera’s sophisticated autofocus capabilities, I have, at best, a blurred or partial image of the bird as proof.

Besides the beach, other good spots to see these birds are the ferry terminal area at the north end and Springer’s Point at early evening.

If you have any comments or suggestions for a “spotted” column, feel free to contact me, petevankevich@gmail.com.