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the web of life in southern Africa

Rynchops flavirostris (African skimmer) 

WaterploeŽr [Afrikaans]; Afrikaanse schaarbek [Dutch]; Bec-en-ciseaux d'Afrique [French]; Braunmantel-scherenschnabel [German]; Bico-de-tesoura-africano [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Charadriiformes > Family: Laridae  

Rynchops flavirostris (African skimmer) 

African skimmer. [photo Stephen Davis ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs across much of sub-Saharan Africa, absent from arid and semi-arid areas. In southern Africa it is locally common in the Caprivi Strip (Namibia), northern Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and central Mozambique. It generally prefers large rivers and lakes with expansive, exposed sandbars and islands which are used for roosting and breeding. 

Distribution of African skimmer in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common).

Predators and parasites

Movements and migrations

Partial intra-African breeding migrant, arriving in southern Africa when the water level of rivers starts falling in the period from April-June, travelling north after breeding when rivers start rising again from November-January.


It almost exclusively eats small riverine fish, mainly hunting at night as it has powerful nocturnal vision, although when feeding chicks it often has to forage in the afternoon as well. It mainly forages using a unique technique in which it flies low, with its oversized lower mandible slicing through the water; if it touches something (such as a fish) the bird instinctively shuts its bill to the capture the prey. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:

  • Fish
    • Micralestes acutidens (Silver robber)
    • Tilapia (tilapia)
    • Barbus (barbs)
    • Marcusenius macrolepidotus (Bulldog)
    • Hepsetus odoe (African pike)
    • Aplocheilichthys (topminnows)
    • Petrocephalus catostoma (Northern churchill)


  • Monogamous, nesting either solitarily or in a colony of up to 25 pairs, sometimes along with other birds such as Collared pratincoles, Pied avocets and White-fronted plovers.
  • The nest is probably built by both sexes, consisting of a deep scrape in the ground (which is often damp), usually digging multiple scrapes before selecting one. It is typically placed close to the water level on a riverine sandbar.
  • Egg-laying season is mainly from August-October.
  • It lays 2-4 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about 20-22 days.
  • The chicks leave the nest within 1-2 days of hatching, led to the water by the parents, who shade them in the heat of the day and regularly feed them. They eventually take their first flight at about 5-6 weeks old, after which they are still fed by both adults for some time. The adults are vigilant in the defence of their young, mobbing predators and sometimes carrying their young to safety in their bill. 


Near-threatened globally and probably Endangered in southern Africa, due to habitat loss, disturbance and exploitation, such as the harvesting of chicks and eggs as well as boats which flood nests in their wake.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.