Sometimes your birding plans can change on a dime. While photographing a Prothonotary Warbler by the pond, a small white bird flew swiftly through the viewfinder. Naturally, I was distracted from the warbler and lowered the camera to see what it was that dared photobomb my photo. Suddenly, the warbler became a thing of the past. Altogether, there were three white birds diving head first into the water with outstretched wings. They reminded me of the large Northern Gannets I had observed at sea, yet they were MUCH smaller than a Gannet. Little did I know I had just met my newest bird — the Least Tern!
Not So Clear, But Clear Enough!
When you’re out birding, you’ll find birds that you’re unfamiliar with to identify. Jotting down notes about its color or size can sometimes be enough for you to take back to your field guides to make an identification. In the event that your notes can’t capture details needed for a positive ID, a camera can help with this by a still photo or even a video. Since these birds were small and darting about so fast, I couldn’t see enough details to even jot down except:
- it seemed to be a majority of white
- navy blue on the forehead
- yellowish legs and beak
- was fast, small and could cut a curve quickly
- I was still unsure on these notations. Therefore, I needed photos to take back home that I could enlarge on the computer for details.
My photos were not as clear as I had hoped for due to the birds diving so quickly. As a result, on May 15, 2017, I went back to look for them and surprisingly, the birds were still there. I enlisted the help of a friend online to help me ID them by photo. Through Facebook Messenger, she was able to message me as I observed the birds and said what I had to look for was a white forehead and yellow bill to aid in a positive ID. She deduced from my description that it might be a Least Tern.
A White Forehead? Seriously? On THAT Tiny Flying Bird?
Even though it proved hard to photograph such a small and fast bird in flight totally clear with my camera, the photos still allowed me to crop them for a closer look at the forehead. There it was plain as day…the white forehead I was looking for. I “ebirded” my data as “Least Tern” and it flagged as “rare” for my area of inland North Carolina. Nevertheless, I followed the prompts that appeared and added my data and photos accordingly. Later it was approved, as in fact, a “Least Tern.” (Ebird is a great website to enter the birds you see and hear. More on this in a later blogpost.)
Waving the “Rare” Flag
As to why it flagged as “rare”… Least Terns are here along the eastern and southern coastlines for summer breeding, and along large rivers (SERIOUS rivers, like the ones in the central U. S. inland states.) Although Least Terns nest on the open ground on the sandy beaches, inland they may nest on edges of river banks. On occasion they’ll nest on a graveled roof. Hence, they’re also known as Interior Least Terns. After summer they winter back down south of the United States.
Location, Location, Location…
Be sure to look on a map at where you see your bird. Google Maps can provide you with a satellite version so you can view the area with more details. Trees, rivers, highways, state roads and other markers will assist you in seeing just how their habitat looks from the air. Coupled with this information, such a map can prove helpful in returning back to the same location to bird in different seasons to see resident birds year round, or other migrants when present. It can also remind you of where exactly to return again yearly to see if it returns. You can also screenshot the map to your phone to keep for quick reference.
A Closer up View of the Area
Even though the terns were located over a pond and not a sandy beach that day, the pond was adjacent to the Tar River. Incidentally, the Tar flows southeast from Greenville to Washington, North Carolina. The Tar River then becomes the Pamlico River at the Highway 17 drawbridge in Washington. As can be seen in the map below, the river continues to widen considerably from there to its convergence with the large Pamlico Sound. The Sound abuts the outer barrier islands of North Carolina known as the “Outer Banks.” Islands such as Portsmouth Island, Ocracoke Island, Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks peninsula allow the waters of the sound to flow out various inlets at these islands into the mid-Atlantic Ocean.
The pond in which I observed the Least Terns is located five (5) hours from Ocracoke Island or 197 miles by road with a ferry connection across the sound. What made them decide to explore our Tar River?
What Can We Learn About the Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)
- Size: 9 inches, wingspan 20 inches
- Voice: kip, kip, kip or kiDEEK
- Food: catches food mid-air, or by diving head first into water. My observation was it ate what it caught after diving as it was flying off from the water.
- Nest: nests on sandy shores or sometimes a graveled roof if interior. Interior Terns may nest on river shores.
- Migration: winters in Mexico & southward towards South America
- Endangered: The Interior Least Tern is suffering from devastation of its habitat. They primarily nest on sandy river banks, or sandbars. Construction of dams, and other river course obstructions have changed the water levels and flow along the banks causing their nesting habitats to disappear. Also, as more and more people traverse the sandy shores, trample and destroy the nests in the sand, the birds just abandon their nests as a result. For more information concerning this and other facts, the U. S. Federal Wildlife service has great information regarding their habitat and existence. The same problem exists with beach development along the southern coastline of the U. S.
The Great Explorers Lewis & Clark’s 1804 Journal Entry
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the remarkable Corps of Discovery Expedition trek out west of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Part of the purpose of their expedition was to document the animal life they encountered. The explorers saw for their first time the Interior Least Tern on the bank of the Missouri River near what we know as today as Omaha, Nebraska. From their Journal entry dated August 5, 1804, (which you can read the entire entries from that day) Meriwether Lewis penned their experience with the Interior Least Terns:
“I have frequently observed an acquatic bird [EC: sterna antillarum] in the cours of asscending this river but have never been able to procure one before today, this day I was so fortunate as to kill two of them, they are here more plenty than on the river below. they lay their eggs on the sand bars without shelter or nest, and produce their young from the 15th to the last of June, the young ones of which we caught several are covered with down of a yellowish white colour and on the back some small specks of a dark brown…this bird, lives on small fish, worms and bugs which it takes on the virge of the water it is seldom seen to light on trees an qu[i]te as seldom do they lite in the water and swim tho’ the foot would indicate that they did it’s being webbed I believe them to be a native of this country and probly a constant resident.—”
You can read more about their expedition and view the documentary of the Lewis and Clark exploration at PBS.
What I Learned
Even though you try so hard to get a photo of a certain bird, pay attention to what else is going on around you. If you see a bird you don’t normally see, don’t get fixated on the other bird.
- You may not ever get the chance to see the unusual bird again.
- Take the time to jot some notes, video or photograph it if possible.
- Don’t waste time trying to ID it right then and there. It may only be just passing through, so get as many photos as you can.
- You can try to ID it after you’ve gotten your notes and photos.
I went back a THIRD time and saw the Least Terns one evening two days later. The fourth time, (a week later and ever since) they were no where to be found there. As much as I wanted the Prothonotary photo, am glad I had the opportunity to see these great birds and thankful a good friend was able to help me ID it!