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The black skimmer is the largest of the three skimmer species. It measures 40–50 cm (16–20 in) long with a 107–127 cm (42–50 in) wingspan. This species ranges from 212 to 447 g (7.5 to 15.8 oz), with males averaging about 349 g (12.3 oz), as compared to the smaller female’s 254 g (9.0 oz). The basal half of the bill is red, the rest mainly black, and the lower mandible is much-elongated. The eye has a dark brown iris and catlike vertical pupil, unique for a bird. The legs are red. The call is a barking kak-kak-kak. Adults in breeding plumage have a black crown, nape and upper body. The forehead and underparts are white. The upper wings are black with white on the rear edge, and the tail and rump are dark grey with white edges. The underwing colour varies from white to dusky grey depending on region. Non-breeding adults have paler and browner upperparts, and a white nape collar. Immature birds have brown upperparts with white feather tips and fringes. The underparts and forehead are white, and the underwings as the adult.
It breeds in North and South America. Northern populations winter in the warmer waters of the Caribbean and the tropical and subtropical Pacific coasts, but the South American races make only shorter movements in response to annual floods which extend their feeding areas in the river shallows.
Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. Unlike most birds, their eyes have vertical pupils, narrowed to slits to cut the glare of water and white sand. Flocks in flight may turn in unison, with synchronized beats of their long wings. The world's three species of skimmers are sometimes placed in their own separate family, although they are clearly related to the terns.