West Beach and The Black Skimmers

Locals know that the best time on the beach can be winter time, when most of the visitors have left, the Channel is crisp and clear, and the water birds have arrived. It is the perfect time for long walks in the sand.

The most intriguing winter shorebird is the Black Skimmer. You can often find hundreds of them hang out on the beach. The best place to find them is on the West Beach sand spit where Mission Creek flows into the ocean just left of Stearns Wharf.

And what a fantastical bird— more like a Dr. Seuss bird than one devised by nature. The skimmer has an improbable beak, a third the length of its body. The beak is bright orange with a black tip and is so heavy that a bird may stretch out full length with the beak resting in the sand. No other bird on earth has a beak where the lower mandible is longer than the upper mandible.  It’s also unusual that their pupils are vertical, narrowed to slits to cut the glare off the water.  It’s all about fishing.

Just before sunset, the skimmers rise up on their long slender wings and head to the water. They fly low with their beaks open as the lower mandible furrows the water.  When a small fish or a crustacean is encountered, the beak snaps closed.  Because the water is often calmest late in the day and the fish are the closest to the surface, the skimmers may continue fishing after dark.

-Contributed by the Naturalist Phila Rogers