black skimmers feat img
photograph by Jared Lloyd

No, you’re not seeing things: These birds are flying with their lips in the water. Or their bills, more precisely. Beach-nesting black skimmers live up to their name, flying low over the surf, with their bills open and their lower mandibles “skimming” the surface of the water. When its beak makes contact with a silverside minnow, a herring, or a needlefish, a black skimmer snaps its mouth shut and flies off to feed.

These are big birds, with a wide, three-and-a-half-foot wingspan and a black-tipped red bill that might make a toucan a bit envious. But few birds would envy the tough spot black skimmers find themselves in these days. The birds nest on sandy beach spits and the tips of islands, and as more human residents lay claim to the coast, there are fewer options for black skimmers. Those that do manage to make a home here nest from May through July, turning heads with their aerial displays and swooping flights mere inches from the surface of the ocean.

Above Photo: If the seawater is deep enough for a fish, it’s deep enough to catch a fish, as this pair of black skimmers working a shallow pool at Oregon Inlet will attest.

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Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.