Thursday, March 12, 2015

From Anous to Thalasseus: Tern Heroes

Brown Noddy is a truly slick looking bird, with shades of gray, brown and black all somehow seamlessly melting into one another.  I'm told they can be pretty aggressive around nests but in my experience with them you just walk up to them and they let you stare at them super hard. Photographed at Midway Atoll.

I have a plan...a plan to see a certain species of tern.  A species I haven't seen before.  I'm not going to try for another couple of months, but I'm really looking forward to it.  I don't get lifer terns very often (the last couple were Bridled in 2013, Aleutian in 2010) so I'm getting pretty worked up about it. Terns are a big deal.  They are aesthetically pleasing, highly migratory, prone to vagrancy, and often offer a worthy ID challenge.  Many species are stunning, even while still comfortably constrained by The Economy of Style.  In anticipation and celebration of this event, I'm going to post a suite of other terns that have improved my life in myriad ways.

My experiences with Black Noddy, on the other hand, have not been similar.  They look at you from trees and don't want to be near you.  Although I saw many, many Black Noddies while out at Midway, this was the one and only really approachable individual I found...which I am grateful for, because it chose the perfect perch and perfect background. Note the longer, more slender bill in comparison to Brown Noddy.

Sooty Terns sure do get around...around the world, that is.  It's one of two tern species I've seen on the east coast, west coast, and Hawaiian Islands (Least Tern being the other).  This bird was (still is?) part of the colony on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll.

Ahhh, my last life tern, and what a sweet lifer it was.  Before seeing them I was always confounded about how these could be told from Grey-backed Terns (which do have some range overlap in the South Pacific), but I can see a difference now. This Bridled Tern was photographed off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Grey-backed Terns are sweet birds...they sometimes nest in the same places as Sooty Terns, but are always less abundant and less annoying (Sooty colonies are loud and intense).  I've always considered them the luxury car of terns, although I don't know why and that probably doesn't make sense to anyone else.  Note the finer bill and paler back than the Bridled Tern above; Grey-backed also has less black in the primaries when seen from below. Photographed at Midway Atoll.

Least Terns and I go way back...they are one of the handful of birds that I remember well from those dark ages of before I was a birder.  I worked with these birds a lot in San Diego a couple years ago, unfortunately all of their breeding colonies fared horribly and it was kind of depressing (colonies up and down California failed that year).  Photographed in Escondido, CA.

As far as photography goes, shooting feeding terns never gets old.  Here is a Forster's Tern, mid-plunge. Photographed at the Tijuana River Estuary, CA.

Though shackled with a...common...yet horrible name, Common Tern is always a bird we enjoy seeing in California.  Rarely common, we most often find them during fall migration at the Salton Sea, coastal wetlands and well offshore, in the realm of Arctic Terns.  You would not expect to find a bird from the Canadian prairie far out at sea, but luckily birds have a habit of defying birder expectations.  Photographed at Ormond Beach, CA.

Arctic Terns are tantalizing.  Unless you are lucky enough to bird where they breed, they always seem so...ephemeral.  Uncommon off California during fall, they are never really dependable on pelagic trips, and sightings are usually brief and of poor to mediocre quality. I want to see more. Photographed off Bodega Bay, CA.

I first met Sandwich Tern at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (in Orange County, CA) back in the mid 90's when one had teamed up with an Elegant Tern to make hybrids.  It would be over 10 years before I saw another, but now we make sure to eyeball each other with more regularity. Photographed at the Dry Tortugas, FL.

Elegant Terns are a common sight up and down California in summer and fall.  As breeders, they have increased in the state over the years, forming colonies in San Diego, Orange and most recently Los Angeles minor achievement, considering how few breeding colonies there are in the world.  Photographed at Half Moon Bay, CA.

Unlike on the Atlantic coast, Royal Terns do not venture very far northward; they are a rare bird away from southern California.  Despite frequently associating with Elegant Terns (which provide great comparisons), they are often misidentified...but such is the fate of many terns South Padre Island, TX.

For the world's biggest tern, you would think Caspian Terns would have some different behaviors from the rest of the family...but aside from monstrous vocalizations, they are pretty similar.  Fortunately, those horrible calls are quite charming.  Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

Gull-billed Terns, on the other hand, know how to stand apart.  Gull-billed Terns are just as content foraging for horned lizards in the sand dunes as they are fish in the surf line.  They hunt bird eggs and chicks, and will get mobbed by other tern species.  They are everything Caspian Terns wish they could be, all while carrying themselves with a certain grace and elegance. Photographed at the Tijuana River Estuary.

Black Terns have always been there for me.  Back when I started birding, a Black Tern was one of the first Vague Runts I ever saw (at the Ventura Water Treatment Plant, if you must know). They are always there for me at the Salton Sea in the summer.  When I needed them most (for lack of humanity to spend time with), they were there in the greatest of numbers in North Dakota.  I would be lying if I said I wasn't dying to see their Vague Runt brethren, White-winged Tern, but until I do Black Terns will continue to validate my existence.  Photographed at Lostwood NWR, North Dakota.

White Tern is a singular bird...there's nothing quite like them. They nest pretty much anywhere that isn't the ground, just plop out an egg where hopefully the chick won't be too exposed to the weather. They are tame. They come hover next to your head as you walk by their perch. If you haven't seen one, they are your favorite bird waiting to happen. Photographed at Midway Atoll.

Last but not Least Tern, I finally give you a stupid tern pun and offer you an honorary tern, a Black Skimmer. Skimmers look great on the wing, but they always look so grumpy at rest. Maybe if no one could tell that I had eyeballs, I would seem grumpy too.  Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.


  1. Wonderful shots, opening up the crush drawer.

    It is my belief that Black SKimmers have the large mandible and skim with it in the same way insects use antennae--to feel their surroundings. This keeps the eyeless Skimmers from crashing into the sea.
    The fact that this also catches them food is a positive externality.

    1. I have seen Skack Blimmers foraging in complete darkness, so I absolutely back this theory.