“Aerial Beagles”

BLOG_BlackSkimmer31_When the young, underweight shorebird who could not fly was recently admitted to our shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, the staff became puzzled during the Black Skimmer’s examination when no injury was found. He was obviously thin and lethargic, but we couldn’t find anything else wrong. We can do a lot of remarkable things for wild animals in distress, but we can’t read minds and he wasn’t talking, in English anyway. We hydrated him, introduced a diet of shrimp and silversides, and he started coming around. The juvenile skimmer is putting on weight, becoming more active and continuing to improve. It’s only a guess, but we’re thinking he may not have paid enough attention to his parents’ classes on how to forage and eat on his own. Kids! There are three types of Skimmers, which are a small family of specialized and social shorebirds, found widely in North & South America, Africa and India. Although the global skimmers are closely related, the Black Skimmer is the largest and the only skimmer that resides in North America. Skimmers often roost with gulls and terns along our North Carolina coast. They are called Skimmers due to the way they forage and feed with their uniquely shaped bill. The lower mandible extends well beyond the tip of the upper mandible and that design sets it apart from other shorebirds whose bill is even from base to tip.  A Black Skimmer flies low over water, skimming the surface with its mouth open and submerging the lower, longer bill. When it comes in contact with a potential food item, it will reflexively snap its bill closed, capturing the meal, which would most likely be a silverside, killifish, menhaden, bluefish, sand lance, shrimp or needlefish. BLOG_BlackSkimmerFlyingPairThe food caught will be swallowed during flight or after landing. Although Black Skimmers are a water bird with webbed feet, it is unusual for them to be seen on the water swimming. They are either in the air or on the ground. If you see them on the ground, they often display the unusual habit of lying prone on the sand. This posture, with their bellies flat on the ground and their heads and necks extended in front of them, makes them look like exhausted “hound dogs.” So if you think a skimmer has “kicked the bucket,” take a closer look. It’s probably only resting or some folks refer to that behavior as “loafing.” Although active during the day at low tide, Black Skimmers will do most of their feeding at night. Adult Black Skimmers are easy to identify, even when they are found mingling in groups of gulls and terns. They have predominantly black markings; black back and hooded head and snow white forehead and under belly. Their webbed feet are bright reddish orange, and you can’t miss their most noticeable feature, the also bright reddish orange 2.5 inch uneven bill that is compressed laterally and resembles a knife blade. They have quite the under bite, but it serves them well! Skimmer’s bodies are oddly proportioned, measuring eighteen inches in length with long, narrow wings and extremely short legs. Their wingspan is 3.5 feet, but they weigh in at only a half pound. Skimmers have a light graceful flight, with steady beats of their long wings, and they are so stream lined, bird watchers have described them as “sports cars of the air.” BLOG_BlackSkimmer21Juvenile skimmers by contrast are mottled brown and black on top and off-white underneath. The juvenile also sports an even bill until adulthood development is evident. Skimmers, social birds who are dependent upon sandy coasts and barrier islands, nest in colonies upon beaches, salt marsh islands, dredge spoil islands, lagoons, inlets, sheltered bays, estuaries, sand bars and occasionally on a gravel roof. They prefer the shelter of tucked away water sources rather than open surf. Their nests are built on the ground and often consist of simple scrapes or depressions in the sand. Initial egg laying for skimmers usually occurs between mid-May and early June, but some late arrivals or re-nesting skimmers have been known to make the scene. Eggs are usually laid in every other day intervals and a typical nest contains 3-4 white, buff or blue-green eggs with brown markings. These eggs are often hard for people to see and very camouflaged on the bare sand, usually among shell fragments and scattered grass clumps. Incubation of the eggs requires between 21-26 days, and both parents share incubation and rearing responsibilities. Skimmers are smart birds; they almost always nest near aggressive gull and tern colonies so those equally loud birds can help ward off predators and other disrupters.

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They rely on camouflage or group mobbing to protect their nests. To protect their babies, the parent skimmer will “mob,” or rise up into the air, and attack intruders by swooping low and uttering a sharp, barking call to scare off predators, which includes humans. That’s where the nickname “Aerial Beagle” came from. When they get distressed, they sound like a dog barking overhead. The chicks hatch within about three weeks and start eating regurgitated fish dropped on the sand by their parents. It takes about four weeks until the chicks are ready to fly and another couple of weeks for them to learn to become proficient fliers. Black skimmers are a migratory species, therefore, we see an increased population when Northern skimmers show up in our North Carolina coastal region to winter, unless they head further south, which should be occurring during October. Black Skimmers are classified as threatened and a species of special concern due to habitat loss which has reduced suitable nesting spots. Their nests are also extremely vulnerable to disturbances by humans, domestic dogs, raccoons and predatory birds. So, during breeding season next Spring, please watch your step and keep dogs on leashes while enjoying a walk through the Black Skimmer’s habitat. BLOG_BlackSkimmerPortrait_Hopefully our rehabilitated, young skimmer will be strong enough soon to rejoin his colony in time to possibly make an aerial trek even farther south for the Winter, and we look forward to him visiting his birthplace of North Carolina next year!

Happy Upcoming Holidays, Everyone!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Author’s Website http://www.bergman-althouse.com/

 

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