Over the past several months of documenting our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers, beginning in March, we have seen a beautiful collection of shorebirds, gulls, hawks, and wading birds. The continuous ebb and flow of replenishing waters at the tidal creek, expansive marsh, and intertidal pools make for a range of rich habitat where birds can find food and shelter. Minnows, sea worms, crabs, tiny mollusks, and a wide variety of other invertebrates provide fuel for hungry travelers as well as summer residents.
Too many photos for one post I just realized and will post heron and egret photos next.
This morning I arrived to find the Common Tern parent quietly sitting at the Creek’ shoreline. This behavior seemed highly unusual as we have all been observing how passionately the adult safeguards her young and how equally as passionately, she was trying to teach Baby Huey how to fly a bit more energetically.
Yesterday Deb Brown and I observed as the parent flew in nearly half a dozen times, dangling the same minnow over the fledgling’s head and near his mouth, with the last attempt ending in a spectacularly long flight across the marsh. The juvenile seemed a little slow, but perhaps that was to be expected. We don’t know from where and how many miles this family has traveled. In reading about Common Terns, the juveniles stay with the individual family unit for several months after fledging. They don’t generally begin to leave home base and migrate until August. Nonetheless, we were hopeful the little guy would perk up.
The juvenile’s lifeless body was found by the edge of the marsh. There were no visible signs of injury and the body was stiff; he perhaps perished sometime during the night. The parent was staying nearby the body when he/she suddenly flew away high overhead. I thought how very sad for this wonderfully dedicated parent and wondered how long he had been holding vigil, but what next happened became unbearably difficult to watch as she returned with a large minnow in her mouth and began circling around and around, calling and calling for the little one. This went on until I left at 6:55.
It took more than a few moments to find Dad and Marshmallow in this morning’s pea soup thick fog. The pair were their usual energetic and early-morning-hungry selves. Marshmallow did his floppy, floppy fly thing for several minutes, giving me a much needed lift, too.
Thank you everyone for your dedication of time and energy, watchful eyes, and end of the shift notes. I don’t think I have mentioned this previously, but I also want to thank you all for wearing MASKS, it sets a fantastic example! We don’t want to plan our end of the season get together just yet (we don’t want to jinx ourselves), but I am looking forward to it.
A late day update as I had several meetings this morning, including a wonderful interview with Heather and Kory at 1623 Studios about Marshmallow and all things Piping Plover!
We have a first at Good Harbor Beach and that is a Plover chick and his Dad, along with a Common Tern fledgling and its parent! The Terns must have flown in sometime last night. Both pairs are currently together at the bend in the Creek as it is high tide, the beach is busy, and there aren’t any other places to go.
For more information about local terns, below are links to several articles that I have written about Least Terns that were nesting at other north of Boston beaches, but it is so interesting to think about because I have never seen a Common or a Least Tern fledgling in five years of daily monitoring at Good Harbor Beach and it’s pretty exciting!
Common Terns are about 12 to 14 inches, whereas PiPls are only about 7 inches. It is the fledglings though that are quite comical. I call them the Baby Hueys of the avian world because at this approximately one-month-old stage of development, they look larger than their parents. Common Terns are semi-precocial, which means they hatch with feathers and can run around shortly after hatching, just as do PiPl chicks, but Common Terns cannot feed themselves. The chicks and fledglings sit on the shoreline with mouths gaping open and squawking loudly as the parents fish non-stop, depositing minnows into their open beaks.
Common Tern Fledgling
Oftentimes Common Terns and Piping Plovers share the same beach habitat and they typically only go after one another when one is doing something really offensive to the other. Common Terns though are very territorial in terms of people and gulls. If you are observing a Common or a Least Tern and it is flying over your head, calling out constantly, or even dive bombing your head, you are much too close and need to move back. Today’s Common Tern has been going after Great Black-back Gulls, a hawk, and people as it establishes a protective zone around its fledgling.
I hope so much the Tern Family stays for more than a day and that you all get to see the Terns at GHB!
Common Tern adult harassing a Great Black-back Gull
Common Tern delivering breakfast to its fledgling.
Here are a collection of recent photos of different species of shorebirds and songbirds gathering and migrating along Cape Ann beaches that Little Chick may encounter on his journey south.
During the spring breeding season Piping Plover mating adults chase all other birds out of their territory, from the largest Black-backed Gull to the tiniest Song Sparrow. At this time of year, during the summer southward migration, you’ll often see PiPl feeding alongside other PiPl, as well as with Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeers, peeps, terns, and gulls.
Ruddy Turnstones Photobombed
Common Tern fledgling squawking for breakfast.
Won’t someone, anyone, please, please feed me! Unlike Piping Plover chicks, Common Tern chicks cannot feed themselves at birth. Common Tern chicks can walk and swim, but it will be many weeks before they learn to fish.
Tree Swallows massing, foraging in dunes rich with insects and berries.
Compare Common Tern in the foreground to Bonaparte’s Gull in the background. Both have red-orange legs and feet and both are black-headed. The easiest way to differentiate when on the beach is the Common Tern’s bill is orange; the Bonaparte’s Gull’s bill is black.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of peeps. Note how beautifully camouflaged are they in the drying seaweed.
Daybreak and early morning are often the most beautiful times of day to see wildlife.
What fun to encounter a small flock of terns teaching its young to fish. Nearly as large as the adults, the tubby terns cheekily squawk and demand food (shrimp I think in this case). Watch as the fledglings try to master fishing skills while the adults tirelessly guide the young on how to feed themselves.
With many thanks to Paul St. Germain, president of the Thacher Island Association, for information about the ongoing restoration of shorebirds on Thacher Island.
There is nothing common about the uncommon Common Tern. They were named Common because hundreds of thousands formerly nested along the Atlantic Coast. As with many species of shorebirds, the rage for wearing fancy feathered hats during the 1800s nearly drove these exquisite “swallows of the sea” to extinction. After the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was ratified in 1918, terns began to recover.
A second major setback occurred when in the 1970s open landfills were closed, displacing thousands of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. The aggressive and highly adaptable gulls resettled to offshore nesting sites used by terns.
Common Terns are a Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts. Through a statewide long-term commitment of restoration, protection, and management of nesting colonies, the populations are very slowly and gradually increasing.
Former nesting sites include islands such as Cape Ann’s Thacher Island. During the mid 1950s, over 1,125 pairs of Arctic, Common, and Roseate Terns nested on Thacher Island. Today there are none.
The southern side of Thacher Island is owned by the Thacher Island Association. The northern end of Thacher Island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the authority of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. These organizations are working together to restore terns and other species of birds to Thacher Island.
After spending the past eight weeks filming the sparrow-sized Piping Plovers, it was fun to unexpectedly encounter these tubby Common Tern fledglings. Although able to fly, they stood at the water’s edge, unrelentingly demanding to be fed. The adults willingly obliged.
Unlike plovers, which can feed themselves within hours after hatching (the term is precocial), tern fledglings are semi-precocial, which means they are somewhat mobile at hatching but remain and are fed by their parents. Terns and gulls are semi-precocial.
The fledglings appear larger than the adults and are very well fed. Both parents feed their young. The terns are building fat reserves for the long migration to the South American tropical coasts, some traveling as far as Peru and Argentina.
Common Tern dive bombing gull
Although unperturbed by my presence, they sure did not like the seagulls. Any that ventured near the fledglings feeding were told in the most cheekiest of terms to buzz off–dive bombing, nipping, and nonstop loudly squawking–the intruder did not stick around for very long.
Common Tern populations are in decline, most probably because of pesticide poisoning and habitat loss.