By Carol A. Jones
One of the most distinctive and beautiful birds we get to see here along the coast is the Black Skimmer. It is a member of a large group of birds called waterbirds because they obtain their food from the water. Skimmers are fairly easy to identify from their field marks. They look somewhat like a gull or tern but have a black cap and back, are white underneath and have a distinctive bill that is orange at the base and black toward the tip. The Black Skimmer is the only bird in the world with the lower mandible longer than the upper mandible. Their legs are fairly short and red. Their wings are long and when they are sitting on the ground they extend well past the tail. These long wings aid in gliding as the birds open their bills and skim the surface of the water with their lower mandible to catch small fish.
Look for Black Skimmers on open sandy beaches, on gravel or shell bars with sparse vegetation, dredge deposition islands or on mats of tide-stranded debris in saltmarsh. Skimmer are considered part of the group of birds called colonial waterbirds because they nest in large colonies with many birds packed in together.These birds nest on shell or gravel areas where mates scrape the ground to make a saucer shaped indention about an inch deep. They lay 4 eggs and incubate them for 21-25 days. The eggs are perfectly camouflaged cream colored with splotches and spots of brown and gray to blend in with the shell substrate. At hatching, the chicks are covered in tan down and are completely dependent on the parents. The mandibles are the same length but in just 4 weeks at fledging the lower mandible will already be 1 cm longer than the upper. Both parents feed the chicks for 3 to 4 weeks after hatching. At first the chicks eat only regurgitated fish the parents drop on the ground, but before long, they are able to eat whole small fish. Although the Black Skimmer is active throughout the day, it is largely crepuscular – more active at dawn and dusk skimming the waters’ surface than in the middle of the day.
You may not be aware that Dow Texas Operations has one of the largest Black Skimmer nesting colonies on the Texas coast in the middle of their plant in Freeport. The Dow employees are very proud of their colony and it is well protected within the plant. This Saturday, June 28th, Dow Texas Operations will host their annual Skimmer Day from 9:00am to noon. This free public event provides a rare opportunity to view the colony at Dow Plant A in Freeport. If you would like to see a Black Skimmer up close this is your chance. Meet at the Dow A-41 gate located on FM 523 which is 1 mile south of Hwy 332 and FM 523 intersection for shuttles to the site.