As the school year draws to a close and the official beginning of summer approaches, my thoughts turn to terns. These elegant little seabirds nest in large numbers along the south shore of Long Island, and early June is the prime time to visit their bustling breeding colonies. Most of the birds in these crowded congregations are Common Terns, joined by groups of Black Skimmers and a few Least Terns. When the parents fly out to sea forage en masse, they attract the attention of migrating individuals that are passing by offshore. These birds may follow the feeding flocks back to the beach, where they end up loafing around among the locals.
The closest, most accessible, most reliable colony in my area is at Nickerson Beach. As long as you arrive before 10 or after 4, you can avoid the exorbitant entry charge and check out the action down on the coast. During my first year back home after college, Nickerson was on fire. I saw 8 different species of terns in one day standing post. 2016 was a bit less exciting, but you can always count on this site to serve up something worthwhile. This year, the rarity reports started flooding in with the force of a burst dam. I headed down the beach on Wednesday afternoon, but I failed to connect with most of the anticipated targets. A flyby pair of Gull-billed Terns and a handful of Roseate Terns relaxing on the sand were welcome observations, but the Arctic, Sandwich, Royal, and Black Terns seen previously didn’t turn up. Rob P even discovered a young Little Gull, my number one Nemesis Bird, which also failed to return. I left the beach as sunset, finding consolation in dinner from Jordan’s Lobster Farms.
Thursday found me back at the beach yet again. I put in about an hour of search time, but failed to locate anything particularly noteworthy. Plovers, Willets, and large flocks of gulls kept me amused as I sifted through hundreds of skimmers and terns.
Mike Z refound the Arctic Tern bright and early on Friday morning, so I headed straight to Nickerson after quitting time. I coordinated with Brendan to see if he cared to join me in my hunt, and he ended up reaching the site before I did. No one had seen the tern since Mike watched it fly away, but I still felt good about the odds of finding it. I set up my scope at the edge of the eastern colony, began sweeping through the birds, and quickly picked up a subtly different individual. Tiny, short legs resulted in a slope-backed stance, and the overall coloration was grayer than the surrounding Common Terns. The head was rounder, the bill was shorter and darker red. A more extensive black cap ended closer to the gape, highlighted by a thin stripe of white that set the gray body plumage apart. The tail streamers were marginally longer, extending beyond the tips of the folded wings. Bingo.
Arctic Terns are the world champions of migration. No other living creature known to man travels so far over the course of a single year. Breeding in the northern limits of the planet and wintering in the Antarctic, this species chases summer back and forth across the globe. The record was recently set by an individual that flew 59,650 miles round trip. This incredible journey results in the Arctic Tern seeing more daylight annually than any other organism. I’m a lifelong fan of these winged wanderers, and I felt privileged to live in their world, however briefly, during my summer on the Project Puffin team. Seeing one of these birds away from its nesting grounds is a rare treat. It’s amazing that this tern’s globetrotting adventure brought it so close to my home.
I put out a report that I had relocated the Arctic, and birders rushed to the scene. Brendan, Doug F, Rob P, Kevin, Stefan, and Arie were among those who were happy to find the bird still present when they arrived. I stayed put to keep tabs on the tern, watching for it whenever the flock took flight and taking pains to track where it perched. We were also treated to a trio of Royal Terns that noisily flew west down the beach, and there were plenty of gulls and shorebirds present for photo opps.
I returned home just before sunset, ready to relax after a long week of work and bird chasing. An evening spent in the company of an Arctic Tern is lovely by default, and it was only improved by the air of camaraderie surrounding the scene of the observation. Quite frankly, it was birding at its best: old friends and new faces coming and going, sharing the challenge of identifying and monitoring a high-quality bird, swapping stories and trading wisdom. There’s nothing else quite like it!
Year List Update, June 9 – 302 Species (+ Roseate Tern, Arctic Tern)