Over the years, birds have adapted their physical attributes to match their food gathering needs.  Safety and reproduction have also driven each bird species to specialize.

Bills become longer to probe in the sand for food.  Feet become webbed to facilitate swimming. Feathers match the leaves on the trees to camouflage each bird for safety from predators.

But there is one species whose beak has changed to enable it to catch fish in a unique way.  FMWAS has selected that bird as its BIRD OF THE YEAR because it spends the summer raising its young on Pensacola Beach.

The Black Skimmer has developed its own special niche in shoreline feeding.  It is the only bird in North America with the lower mandible longer than the top mandible.

If you visit a beach on sound side at the end of the day you can see Skimmers in a line flying close to the water with their lower mandibles in the water, occasionally catching a small fish, eating it while continuing to fly in the formation.

Skimmers feed mainly at dusk or dawn and sometimes at night. They hunt mostly by the touch with the sensitive beak.

This species has to have excellent night vision. For this, Skimmers have a unique, interesting eye formation.  During the day they sit on the beach in small groups.  Because they feed mostly at night they must protect their eyes from sun damage.

The lids, which protect their eyes from the bright sunlight during this in-between feeding time, close from side to side instead of top to bottom. They form a vertical slit like a cat’s eye. This allows for keener night vision

The color of the Skimmer’s feathers also helps to protect it from predators.  The black back makes it hard to see from above as it soars above the water.

The white underneath allows it to approach groups of small fish without alarming them.

The Black Skimmer is a well-designed bird. But what happens when it runs into a rock with its lower mandible? Thank goodness for the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida!

By Peggy Baker
 Photographs by Larry Goodman