One of the more unusual looking avian inhabitants of the Caprivi region of northern Namibia, and rare enough to be considered “endangered” in the southern African region, is the African skimmer. The most striking feature about the bird is its bill – red with a yellow tip and with the lower mandible about three centimetres longer than the upper mandible.
With a length of approximately 39 cm, the sexes are alike in plumage colouration and the males are larger than the females. Dark, almost black upper parts and white forehead, throat and under parts are quite distinctive. Eyes are brown; legs and feet, with partially webbed toes, are red.
Inhabiting large open stretches of water with bare sandbanks and sandy islands, the African skimmer is usually found in small groups. Their method of feeding is unusual, and provides the reason for the oddly proportioned bill. The birds feed mainly at night, flying low over the water with body tilted forward, bill open and the lower mandible skimming through the water. Although flying very low, their long wings do not touch the water. On encountering a fish, the bill snaps shut and the fish is caught. What an amazing adaptation!
The call of the African skimmer is a loud “kik-kik-kik”.
The African skimmer is monogamous and their nest is an unlined hollow in the sand, usually on a sandbar. The placement of these nests has contributed to the decline in bird numbers in the recent past as the wake of boats using the waterways washes eggs and chicks from the nests. The female lays a clutch of 2 to 4 pale buff-coloured eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of approximately three weeks.
The scientific binomial for the African skimmer is Rynchops flavirostris; Rynchops from the Greek words for “face” and “bill”, and flavirostris from the Latin for a “yellow bill”. The name thus focuses on the extraordinary bill with which this bird is equipped, which is not surprising at all.