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Skimming the surface of a fascinating Coast bird

A juvenile black skimmer — too young to have the classic red on its bill — cuts through the water in search of small fish, demonstrating how it got its name. The photographer Sharon Gillian, learned about Mississippi Coast birds from her friend and birding columnist Judy Toups.
A juvenile black skimmer — too young to have the classic red on its bill — cuts through the water in search of small fish, demonstrating how it got its name. The photographer Sharon Gillian, learned about Mississippi Coast birds from her friend and birding columnist Judy Toups. Courtesy

The little fellow, dressed in a tuxedo topped by a red bow tie, shears through the water with his scissors. Then he joins the parade of carbon-copy brothers and sisters forming a thick line on the sand.

That’s about as nonsensical I can get about the black skimmer, with apologies to Ogden Nash, et al. The fascinating bird so prevalent on the Mississippi Coast shoreline deserves a better description but my childhood imagination has developed no further. I enjoy watching them parade on the beach and skim the water as much now as I did back then.

Not just me

I am far from alone in my fascination of Rynchops niger (pronounced RING-cops NYE-jer). This newspaper in April 1953 reported a visit by Mrs. Merrill H. Willett, a Long Island, New York, science teacher who felt that “with the exception of Alabama and western North Carolina, no large area in the eastern United States has been so little explored ornithologically as Mississippi.”

Her sighting of skimmers in Gulfport is noteworthy:

“We saw hundreds of the black skimmers lined up on one of the sand spits under a brilliant sun that lighted the bright red-and-black bills so that it was a breathtaking beautiful sight. And when on being disturbed by some noise, they wheeled into the air in formation, giving their lark-like notes, we were fixed in our tracks with our binoculars glued to our eyes.”

Similar experience

Earlier this year, I experienced the same sensation in Gulfport, not that Gulfport has any exclusive rights to the skimmer. Indeed, this bird is found in the three coastal counties in every city that claims beach, on the islands and in estuaries.

Happily, the skimmers are permanent residents, although in the winter their ranks swell from real “Northern snowbirds” who migrate to the Gulf Coast for the season, seeking warmer climes just like their human counterparts.

Fascinating creatures

Before I write about anything, even if I believe I’m already well informed, I research. This time I kept running into the name “scissorbill.” It was a popular earlier name for the skimmer, an obvious reflection of the way this bird hinges open its lower bill and skims through the water to capture small fish meals.

That odd name also explains the local common name, shearwater. When the famous artistic Anderson family moved to Ocean Springs in the early 20th century, they chose the shearwater name for their family compound and pottery business.

Research also uncovered a new legend that I am adding to my basketful of local Easter folklore, which includes such oddities as the Crucifix Fish and the sand-dollar. Folklorist James T. Callow heard from a Hungarian immigrant family in Detroit that the scissorbill received its name “because of the fact that, when Christ was crucified, this bird was alleged to have tried to pull the nails out and thus received its twisted bill.”

The details

In explanation, the skimmer’s bill is knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper, creating in some minds this twisted allusion.

The worldwide family of skimmers is small, so we should treasure their Coast presence. One species ranges in Southeast Asia and another in tropical Africa. The North American black skimmer is strictly coastal and considered a social species. That is why we may see 100 or more of these birds huddled together on the beach, facing the wind in unison.

Toups = Coast birding

Coast research into skimmers will always bring up the name of the late Judith A. Toups, the respected birder whose books, newspaper columns and community classes educated several generations of locals about our feathered friends. Judy’s greatest legacy is preservation of several protected least tern and skimmer nesting sites on the beach. A portion of Beach Boulevard in Gulfport bears her name.

A year ago, Judy’s birding friends decided her 30-plus years of “Bird Watch” columns in this newspaper and her vast knowledge should not be lost to time. They created the blog ayearwithjudytoups.blogspot.com, which featured 52 of Judy’s columns. Although the blog is no longer active, visitors to the site can still read them.

Judy’s friend Alison Henry also got permission to collect up her more than 1,300 Sun Herald columns, beginning in the 1970s, and she typed them into a computer database that could one day be a birding research tool. Alison explains, “We just didn’t think all that wonderful knowledge should be lost.”

Judy’s words

Before writing this Sunday missive, I read what Judy had to say about skimmers. “Awesome,” “captivating,” “unique” and “weird and funny looking” are just a few of her descriptions.

“You will not find skimmers and terns in any travel brochure listing points of interest, nor will watching them be found under ‘things to do while visiting the Coast.’” Judy wrote in 1999. “In my opinion, that is a failing that should be corrected.”

Judy, I couldn’t say it any better myself.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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