Breeding Bird Atlas 2 Species Accounts

Black Skimmer

Rynchops niger

  • Very local, trend not established
“With their extraordinary lower mandibles, a third longer than the upper ones, and held almost at right angles to their necks, the skimmers were colorful, irresistible, unforgettable.” – Roger Tory Peterson and James M. McConnell Fisher, Wild America

The Black Skimmer is an anatomically unusual bird, and its surface-skimming feeding strategy is practically unique. The Black Skimmer’s coal-black back and long lower mandible further contributes to making it one of our most unmistakable coastal species. Skimmers nest colonially and often in association with terns, possibly to benefit from the terns’ vigilance and aggressive persistence against predators. Unfortunately, this strategy failed when tern colonies became the prime targets of plume hunters and egg collectors during the late nineteenth century.

Historic Status

Black Skimmers greeted Samuel de Champlain as he investigated what would one day become the coast of Massachusetts in July 1605 (Forbush 1925). They have engaged in an on-again off-again relationship with the state ever since, with spotty breeding records mirroring their seemingly languid attitude. There is a circuitous story, reported by Henry A. Purdie, that William Brewster had been told the species was nesting on Nantucket's Muskeget Island in the 1830s. Purdie also quoted Cape Cod residents of the 1830s as saying “them cutwater or shearwater birds used to be with us summer times” (Forbush 1925). Forbush goes on to suggest that the species may have then been extirpated by eggers, a fate he reported they met along the east coast. Breeding in Massachusetts resumed in 1946, and continued erratically into the period of Atlas 1.

Atlas 1 Distribution

Black Skimmers turn up in Massachusetts most frequently at tern colonies in areas with natural protection from predators, such as islands or barrier beaches. Their breeding appearances in Massachusetts have always been unpredictable, but fortunately one such appearance was made during the Atlas 1 period at Monomoy Island in 1976. No other signs of breeding skimmers were found during Atlas 1, but fortunately this odd-billed species would return in future years.

Atlas 2 Distribution and Change

While still a rare breeder in the state, the Black Skimmer was Confirmed in 3 blocks during Atlas 2. Massachusetts represents the northern edge of this species’ breeding range, and forays into the state by potential breeders are a rare but regular occurrence. Their somewhat irruptive behavior, even to our south makes any trend estimation difficult, but the species represents a welcome addition to the community of beach-nesting birds.


Atlas 1 Map

Atlas 2 Map

Atlas Change Map


Ecoregion Data

 Atlas 1Atlas 2Change
Ecoregion# Blocks% Blocks% of Range# Blocks% Blocks% of RangeChange in # BlocksChange in % Blocks
Taconic Mountains00.
Marble Valleys/Housatonic Valley00.
Berkshire Highlands00.
Lower Berkshire Hills00.
Vermont Piedmont00.
Berkshire Transition00.
Connecticut River Valley00.
Worcester Plateau00.
Lower Worcester Plateau00.
S. New England Coastal Plains and Hills00.
Boston Basin00.
Bristol and Narragansett Lowlands00.
Cape Cod and Islands10.7100.042.8100.032.5
Statewide Total10.1100.040.4100.030.4