African skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris)

French: Bec-en-ciseau d'Afrique, Bec-en-ciseaux d'Afrique
Spanish: Rayador Africano
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyLaridae
GenusRynchops (1)
SizeLength: 36 – 42 cm (2)
Wingspan: 106 cm (2)
Weight111 – 204 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

The African skimmer cuts a striking silhouette as it flies with slow wingbeats over the rivers and lakes of sub-Saharan Africa. Its long, black, scimitar-shaped wings and the distinctive structure of its long, bright orange bill tipped with yellow gives the African skimmer an air of the prehistoric (3). The lower half of the bill is much longer than the upper half and flattened like scissor blades (4). The plumage on the back and crown is jet black, contrasting sharply with the white underparts, forehead and short, forked tail. Its monochromatic body colouring makes the vividly coloured bill and bright red legs all the more arresting (3).

Occurs in sub-Saharan Africa; from Senegal, east to Ethiopia, and south to Namibia and Botswana (1) (2).

The African skimmer inhabits broad rivers, coastal lagoons, open marshes and lakes, resting and breeding on large, dry sandbars and beaches (1) (2).

With its uniquely shaped bill, the African skimmer flies low over calm water, with the long lower ‘blade’ of the bill dipping into the water (3). The bill snaps shut when it touches a fish (4), which is then swallowed in flight or after landing (2). African skimmers feed mostly at dusk, dawn and during the night, and rest during the warmer day when their fish prey is less likely to be at the surface of the water (3).

Pairs of African skimmers nest in loose colonies on expansive sandbanks (3), where they lay a clutch of two to three eggs over several days, into a scrape in the sand (2). The eggs are incubated, primarily by the female, for around 21 days, after which the buffy-white chicks hatch (2). In the blistering heat of their sub-Saharan African habitat, African skimmers have been observed dampening their breast feathers in the water before returning to the nest to wet and cool their eggs or young (3). The chicks, whose plumage is peppered with small black dots, are fed fish by both parents until they fledge at around four weeks (2). In West and East Africa, eggs are laid generally from March to June, while south of the equator, laying occurs from July to November (2). The colonies of eggs are vulnerable to being trampled by hippopotami and elephants and to raising river water levels which could destroy an entire colony (2).

Numbers of the African skimmer are believed to be declining (1); the result of numerous impacts on their wetland habitat. The construction of dams has flooded habitats upstream and altered the flow downstream, destroying suitable breeding habitat. The spraying of DDT to control malarial mosquitoes, tsetse flies and agricultural pests, along with other water pollutants, accumulates in fish and can be damaging to fish-eating birds such as the African skimmer. Humans and cattle can disturb colonies with fatal consequences for eggs and chicks, and the collection of eggs also occurs in some areas. The African skimmer may also be impacted through declines in their food supply caused by pollution, over-fishing and the effects of introduced predatory fish (1) (2).

The African skimmer is listed on the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Parties to the agreement, which include Ghana, Gambia, Kenya and Nigeria, are called upon to engage in a wide range of conservation actions (5). It has been recommended that further studies are undertaken to clarify the population status and trends of the African skimmer, in addition to raising public awareness of this eye-catching bird’s conservation needs (1).

For further information on the African skimmer see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2007)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. Harpercollins Publishers, London.
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (December, 2007)
    http://www.unep-aewa.org/home/index.htm