Skimmers come with tropical weather

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Most tropical weather visits the piney woods in September and October. If you live near a major river, lake or reservoir in the piney woods when such weather passes, it may well leave sea birds that most of us would prefer to see along the Gulf of Mexico in places like Galveston, Cameron, Holly Beach or Grand Isle.

The late Dr. George Lowery, Jr., LSU Professor of Ornithology, described the Black Skimmer as follows, "The skimmers are large, long-winged, bizarre, ternlike birds in which the lower half of the greatly compressed bill is longer than the upper half...." The bill is red and tipped in black. The bird literally skims across the surface with the lower half of the bill in the water. The prey, often small fish, is trapped by the much shorter upper bill as it snaps down onto the far larger lower bill.

Louisiana's French speaking natives call the Black Skimmer the "bec a ciseaux, based on the resemblance of the bill to scissors. The bird is quite vocal and its hound-like "yap, yap" accounts for another common name "sea dog". The ornithologist R. C. Murphy was credited in 1936 with describing skimmers looking like "... unworldly ... aerial beagles hot on the scent of aerial rabbits" based on their nose down feeding behavior!

Black Skimmers are active at any time of day but they are primarily crepuscular feeders. That is, they feed most actively at dawn and dusk. Because they actually feed by touching their prey, skimmers may sometimes be found feeding at night.

The Black Skimmer derives its common name based on its feeding behavior and the bright black head cap and back. Below, skimmers are bright white in sharp contrast to the back.

Young skimmers are brownish and speckled above and the bill is much smaller than that of the adult. In fact, both mandibles are the same size at hatching. Young skimmers stand out clearly from adult birds in their first summer and fall when a flock is resting on a beach.

Black Skimmers nest on sea shores, especially the Chandeleur Islands southeast of the Mouth of Mississippi River. Nests are simple scrapes 10 inches across and an inch deep made by both parents using an exaggerated posture with the neck, head, bill and tail raised. The 4-5 eggs are chalky, white and heavily blotched and blend well with the pebbles, sand, broken shells, and debris found on nesting beaches. Beach combers and fishermen visiting nesting areas should avoid walking in areas where skimmers and other sea birds are nesting because there is no identifiable nest. No matter how careful visitors to such an area are, the likelihood of stepping on the camouflaged eggs or cryptic hatchlings, is very high.

There are three species of skimmers. The only American skimmer is the Black Skimmer. Its two relatives are the African Skimmer and the Indian Skimmer. I have only seen Black Skimmers in the piney woods once since moving to the Cotile Lake area in 2002. I'd prefer not to see them here again as the hurricane that brought them left us without power for several days.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive • Boyce, LA 71409
318 793 5529 • piku1@suddenlink.net

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