The African Skimmer is easily identified by its long red bill, with the lower mandible longer than the upper, with a yellowish tip. The dark upper parts contrast strongly with the white underparts, and its long narrow wings have very low wing loading, allowing it to fly just above the water with very little effort.
This remarkable bird is a partial intra-African migrant, though very localised. It can be found in the Chobe-Zambezi confluence from May to December, with its arrival and departure coinciding with the rising and falling of the water levels. Sitting aboard the Zambezi Voyager, or cruising the river on a tender board, provides the perfect opportunity to view these beautiful, elegant birds.
African Skimmers are found in small flocks and are monogamous breeders. Their courtship is a sight to behold – boasting aerial chasing and calling as well as low-level synchronised flights close to the water.
Roosting and breeding on exposed sand banks and sand bars, they two to four eggs, typically between August and October. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 21 days, and the chicks fledge after five to six weeks. Generally when the first egg hatches, the rest of the clutch is abandoned. The chick is fed by both parents and, if threatened, will bury itself in the sand.
They nest as solitary pairs, but are usually found in small dipersed colonies. They will return to the same nesting site each year if it is undisturbed and remains free of vegetation.
African Skimmers feed exclusively on small fish which they catch by flying low over the water with the longer mandible of their bill dragging in the water. They are tactile hunters: when their bill senses a prey it snaps shut, allowing them to hunt in murky water, and reducing their reliance on sight. The lower mandible is connected to a muscular shock absorber system around the their neck and head to absorb the shock when colliding with prey.
They hunt in the late sfternoon, and often at night to avoid competition with other fish eaters. They will, however, hunt throughout the day to make up for the demand when feeding chicks. It takes about three months for the chick’s lower mandible to grow long enough for fishing, during which time they are reliant on their parents for food.