Unlike any other bird, when Black Skimmers are exposed to bright light the pupil is reduced in size into the form of a vertical slit. According to Zusi and Bridge (J. Field Ornithol. 2: 338-340, 1981) this was first reported by Taczanowski in Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1874. I do not have access to Taczanowski's report but I was able to read a note by Alexander Wetmore published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 1919. A clip from the note is shown below.
The Zusi and Bridge paper has drawings of the pupils of the Black Skimmer and Common Tern under five different light intensities, but contains no photographs. The vertical slit pupil is mentioned in many descriptions of Black Skimmers on the internet, but I found no photographs of the cat-like pupil. On my recent Denver > Pensacola trip, I saw numerous large flocks of Black Skimmers and decided to try to photograph the vertical slit pupil. I found it very difficult to do. The dark brown iris is surrounded by black feathers, and the eye is almost invisible. Using my car as a mobile blind, I approached the flocks on the hard sand beaches on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula slowly and in small increments. I was able to get very close to the birds. Using a Nikon D500 camera and 500mm f/4 lens with 1.4x teleconverter attached I focused on the eye region of a skimmer and intentionally overexposed the white areas of the birds to get a decent exposure of the eye.
Slit Pupil of Black Skimmer
Several problems were encountered in trying to get photographic images of the slit pupil. The eye occupies a small region of the photo acquired with the equipment mentioned above. The photos of the pupil in this post were cropped from the 5568 x 3712 pixels of the original photo to approximately 300 x 300 pixels and then enlarged in Photoshop to 600 x 600 pixels to be more visible on the web. There is not much contrast between the brown iris and the black opening of the pupil. I have enhanced the contrast using a couple of methods in Photoshop. Other problems are illustrated below.
Reflections often obscure the slit pupil. The reflections of the clouds, my Subaru Forester and a utility pole are easy to detect in this image. The upper part of the pupil is not obvious because of the reflections of the front of the car, the clouds and sky.
In this image, the upper part of the pupil is obscured by the back of the car, clouds and sky.
The reflection of the car and utility pole are to the left of the pupil but the upper part of the pupil is not distinct because of the reflection of the clouds and sky.
The slit pupil is not visible when the eye is covered by the nictitating membrane!
I finally found photos of the slit pupil on the web. Mark B Bartosik has 3 very nice images on pbase.
Glimpses of Our Natural World
I am an amateur photographer with a specific interest in nature photography, especially bird photography. I live in Pensacola FL and specialize in photos taken in Central Florida, the panhandle of Florida, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas.