First Black Skimmer in Illinois

by Myrna Deaton
photograph of Black Skimmer by Dennis Oehmke

© 1999 Myrna Deaton

On Friday, September 4, I took a short detour through Nelson Park on my way to work in Springfield to see if there were any new migrants on the concrete jetty in the marina. This jetty has always been a resting place for gulls and terns; especially early in the morning if no fisherman has scared them away. At 7:00 a.m. the jetty was packed with gulls. As I pulled into the parking lot across the street, I noticed the back half of a black bird wedged in among all the Ring-billed Gulls. I immediately became excited because there are no gulls or terns in Illinois which are black on the back and almost as large as a Ring-billed Gull. I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the gulls. The visible part of the bird was entirely black, with long pointed wings extending well beyond the tail. The bird was obviously much more short-legged than the gulls.
My mind raced through the short list of possibilities, neither of which had been recorded previously in Illinois: Black Skimmer and Sooty Tern. The recent landfall of Hurricane Earl on the Gulf Coast could have produced a vagrant of either species. One of the gulls blocking my view of the bird's head shifted positions and I had a glimpse of a black and white head, white underparts and a large, oddly shaped red and black bill. The bird was a Black Skimmer!
I pulled across the street and parked and ran down to the jetty to get a closer look and convince myself that I wasn't hallucinating. From the end of the jetty, I was able to get a clear view of the whole bird. There is no other species with which a Black Skimmer can be confused. The large red and black bill with the lower mandible longer than the upper one is unique.

Black Skimmer

Photo by Dennis Oehmke.
Black Skimmer (first time seen in Illinois).

Vagrant birds often do not stay long, so I was anxious to have other birders see the bird and to get photographs for documentation, since this would be a new addition to the Checklist of Illinois Birds. I called Dick Sandburg who lives nearby and returned home to get my camera. By the time I returned a few minutes later with the camera, Dick was there and had seen the bird and was making phone calls to alert other birders. As we approached the jetty, all the birds flushed and flew away. The skimmer is beautiful in flight, with graceful, fluid wingbeats that look effortless. The underwings are almost entirely white, with black tips.
Fortunately, the birds sat again on a roof in the marina next to the Lake Patrol office, one of the places where gulls sit when people force them off the jetty. The Black Skimmer wasn't hard to locate among all those white gulls. I was able to take some distant photographs and show the skimmer to some of the Lake Patrol and the Lake Manager.
By this time I was running late for work, so I reluctantly left the skimmer and headed toward Springfield. I was able to contact several birders in Springfield who could get away to come see the bird. Dennis Oehmke came and took excellent photographs, which will be published in both the Meadowlark, the Journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society, and in Field Notes.
I was able to take off work a couple of hours early, so I returned home about 4:00 p.m, making a quick stop at Nelson Park to make sure the skimmer was still there. I returned several phone calls and called and left a message for Pat Quintenz. Finally a bird she wouldn't have to crawl over barbed wire or through brush to see!
Finally I was able to return to Nelson Park and just spend some time observing the skimmer. Finding the skimmer wasn't a problem, all I had to do was look for people with telescopes and binoculars. The skimmer had returned to the jetty where it remained all evening. We moved down to the sidewalk near the jetty so we could ask people not to walk out and flush the birds. Pat finally made it after her bridge game and we spent a delightful evening watching the bird and showing it to people on their evening strolls by the lake. Several people stopped to chat and look through the telescope. My favorite was a little boy who got really excited and kept saying, "It looks like a Toucan," and running back to look in the telescope again.
I really wanted to see it "skim," the way the colonial flocks do on the coast; gracefully wheeling in unison and dipping their long lower mandibles into the shallow water for crustaceans and small fish. The Black Skimmer's bill is well adapted for feeding in its coastal habitat, but the murky water of Lake Decatur presented quite a challenge. I had reports that it fished during the morning and finally caught and ate a fish, but only after a lot of unceremonious splashing around in the water. We did get to see it fly a little, but mostly it just rested with its bill tucked in. It always stayed away from the gulls, who were obviously wary of this odd black bird with the big, weird bill. When the gulls were threatening, the skimmer would walk toward them with its bill extended and the gulls would back away. At dusk, which was about 7:45 p.m., all the gulls and the skimmer got up together from the spit and flew out on the lake to roost.
My answering machine had run out of room for messages by the time I returned home. My husband, not being a bird person, had given up answering the phone. Every birder in the state who hadn't been able to come today, was poised to make the trip to Decatur on Saturday. They all wanted to know if I thought it would stay another day. I could only tell them that I watched it fly out at dusk. I've learned never to try to predict the behavior of vagrant birds.
I was back at the jetty before dawn the next morning, watching all the gulls fly in to sit. A car full of birders from Bloomington and Chicago arrived shortly after I did. We searched in vain until about 7 a.m. and finally decided it was gone. More people arrived from Chicago, disappointed it had stayed such a short time. About 15 birders did get to see the skimmer on Friday, coming from Springfield, Jacksonville, Peoria, and Champaign.
There was a lot of conjecture about where the skimmer had come from, why it stopped in Decatur and whether it would get back south safely. There were no reports afterwards of a Black Skimmer heading south, so we'll never know. Since this species was previously unrecorded, even hypothetically, in all of the history of ornithology in Illinois, it is a day that I'll remember for a long time. And I'll certainly keep checking that jetty in Nelson Park, but I know I'll probably never find another bird there as exciting as a Black Skimmer!

copyright 1999 Myrna Deaton, all rights reserved

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