When You See a Skimmer

I dare you not to get excited when you see black skimmers scything along the shoreline. I dare you to stay in your own mumbling head, running around on the same hamster wheel of thought. I dare you, as they mow the water, scooping up tiny fish with their preposterous bills, to not at least momentarily skip out of self.

Of course I know you can resist. Skimmers are not the only miraculous animals after all, and human beings excel, beyond all else, at becoming absorbed in their own self stories. But if you actually turn away from those stories and look at these birds for a moment, really look, you’ll need to pause and briefly rearrange the way you think about the world.

Here’s what you’ll see:

A line of birds flying along the shore, the size of small gulls but unmistakably not gulls. Maybe they’re terns, you think for a second, but like no terns you’ve ever seen. An electric red-orange shines from the bills before abruptly turning black halfway toward the tip. It’s a candy-corn color, a color from the pages of a comic book, certainly not something you’d expect to find on real birds. But they are real, and the only birds that have a lower mandible longer than the upper, the better for scooping. They patrol the shore, jaws dropped (like yours maybe), grazing the water and hoping for accidental contact with a fish. At the merest touch, a built-in tactile trigger in their jaw sends a signal to their upper bill, the maxilla, which instantaneously snaps shut.

This might sound miraculous, a thing of wonder, but of course to the fish it is a different, not so wonder-full, story. To the fish the skimmer’s oversized lower mandible cutting through the water might as well be the reaper’s scythe. But you won’t worry too much about the fish as you watch the bird fly belly to belly with the ocean, so close that its reflection seems to fly below it through the water. Instead you’ll watch that lower mandible, the very front part, kick up its small wake as it plows forward. You’ll notice that the birds actually leave a line behind them in the water.

Curious, maybe, you’ll turn to books. You’ll learn that skimmers were once called “sea dogs” for the strange, garbled barking sounds they make. You’ll learn that, like us, they are creatures of edges, harvesting the edge of water and land, working the edges between day and night. Your field guide will wax poetic about their “buoyant” flight, about how they execute “hairpin turns and smooth banks while foraging,” how “their flocks wheel in unison.” As you read on, it may occur to you that evolutionists and creationists could fight for hours over this bird. Days, maybe. Who, after all, the latter group would argue, but a creator, and a creator with a sense of humor, could have created this? The joke-shop nose, the funny barking, the crazy way of getting dinner. The former group would rebut that the silly bill is fit exactly to its task, so could have evolved into no other shape. The only thing the two camps will agree on, throwing up their hands, will be the bizarre uselessness of the bill’s candy-corn color.

You, however, will become greedy for skimmers. You’ll start planning your walks for dawn or dusk so that you can see them gracefully mowing the water. Of course to say that you will return from your walks changed is an exaggeration. Maybe you’ll barely remember the sights of the scything birds during the rest of your day. But if not fundamentally changed, you will be in some unspoken way mildly altered. At the very least you’ll have experienced a blip in the day’s habitual worry. Perhaps, better yet, those sharp bills will have given you a cutting gift, slicing through the nettles of thought long enough for you to notice briefly that there are vast worlds beyond your own.


  1. One of my own earliest essays is evidence of how the candy corn-colored bill of this creature captures the imagination. My brother and I used to hang out on a footbridge at night with a six-pack of Miller High-Life and watch the skimmers “sailing just above the surface, their lower mandible cutting a vee through the dark brown water.” When I moved to Colorado, I didn’t see so many birds as I did before. “Up in the mountains I see eagles and owls, grosbeaks and pipits, but nothing on the same scale as in the subsiding suburbs back home. Herons now are an uncommon joy, and the bodies of hulking gulls have replaced the sleek black backs of skimmers.”

    Something so strange became an emblem of my former home’s unique nature. I’m back in New Orleans (a map of my shotgun house appears in the latest issue of Gessner’s _Ecotone_), but I don’t see as many skimmers as before. Perhaps they, too, are victims of the storm, leaving the heavily polluted canals and wetlands of New Orleans for someplace else.

  2. I live in England, way out of the range of skimmers. But my one experience of them as I stood, bemused, on the beach of South Padre Island, TX is something I’ll never forget.

  3. In fact, one fine winter’s day my life WAS changed by black skimmers. Paddling in my kayak south of Myrtle Beach, I rounded a bend in the salt marsh and saw a mass of black skimmers resting peacefully on a long sand bar. There must have been 2000 of them. Slowly easing my way toward them, I marveled at those startling red bills and equally vibrant red legs. Never before had I seen such a bird.

    Then a motor boat came speeding around the bend and startled the flock. En masse, all 2000 of them took flight right over my head. I threw my body back to take in the entire vision of them rising up in the purest National Geographic moment I had ever experienced.

    Right then and there, I was hooked. Now I look for them every time I go out in the marsh, especially in fall and winter. I’ve learned their sounds: their calls, their clicking beaks as they snap shut on some unlucky morsel. I envy their unerring ability to soar above the surface and skim for supper.

    I feel lucky to have witnessed their aerial maneuvers, and I’m always hoping for another opportunity to see hordes of them in flight.

  4. Thank you for this nice piece. We moved to the Gulf Coast last year and I had my first sight of a pair of skimmers working tide pools at Gulf Island National Seashore this summer. I’d always marveled at the birds in guides but had never seen any, and there they were, mere yards away. It was a breathtaking moment.

  5. I miss seeing skimmers, they are a part of my east coast childhood and young birding enjoyment icons. I often think about standing at the edge of the water and seeing them robotically manueuver over the water, almost silent and perfect. I live in CA now, in the Bay Area and miss these wonderful birds, thank you for the article, it brought me back to that time of learning about birds and building my passion for the natural world.

  6. I am so in love with this piece of writing, I gave it out as holiday gifts to my colleagues at Windsor High School in Sonoma County, California. (I teach math, but that doesn’t preclude me from being a wannabe writer). It reminds of “Lead” by Mary Oliver.

    David, Thank you for making my holidays soar.

    Sincerely yours,

    Amy Zimmer
    Orion Member
    Sebastopol, Ca

  7. This essay reminds me of my childhood and early adolescent years, spending summer times vacationing with my family in non-cultivated areas of Caspian Sea, where we were picking up Skimmers by the river in our little hands cupped around their fragile bodies. Our little fingers would gently hold on their wings, while our searching eyes swept up and down with fascination, looking at their big eyes and the look of their unique bodies. Then, we would let them fly back to freedom, placing them on river face, watching them to taking of and flying away. I can’t forget the clapping sound of their wings.

Commenting on this item is closed.