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
After exploring the beach, the three-day-old Least Tern chick decided to take a short cut through the rocks to nestle under Mom. She was well-camouflaged while brooding and keeping warm and cozy her second chick.
He tried and tried to get to her, first hopping from one foot to the other,
while trying to squeeze with all his tiny might through the space between the rocks…
before tumbling backward, with legs splayed and wings all akimbo.
Quickly righting himself (with directives from Mom),
around he went the long way and had himself a good long snuggle under Mom.
While observing and thinking about tiny shorebird chicks, like Least Terns and Piping Plovers, I am continually struck by their resiliency, by their tenacity, and by their ability to prevail, despite the natural and manmade threats to their survival.
Piping Plover Chick Lift-off! – Not quite ready to fly yet, but testing his wings and airborne for a few seconds.
On Tuesday this past week my friend Deborah and I attended the Coastal Waterbird Conservation Cooperators meeting, which took place at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable. The meeting is held annually to bring together people and organizations that are involved with population monitoring and conservation efforts on behalf of coastal waterbirds. Threatened and endangered species such as Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and American Oystercatchers are given the greatest attention, while the meeting also encompasses efforts on behalf of heron, cormorant, and egret species.
Conservationists from all seven Massachusetts coastal regions participated, as well as conservationists from nearby states, including representatives from New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. To name just some of the organizations presenting at the meeting-Mass Wildlife, Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and US Fish and Wildlife. Gloucester was well represented. In addition to Deborah and myself, two members of the Animal Advisory Committee also attended; chairperson Alicia Pensarosa and former animal control officer Diane Corliss. Many of you may remember our Mass Wildlife Piping Plover intern Jasmine. She was there to give a presentation on habitat vegetation utilized by nesting Piping Plovers. Her aunt, Gloucester’s Terry Weber, was there to support Jasmine. This was Jasmine’s first time speaking in public and she did an excellent job!
Each region gave the 2018 population census report for nesting birds as well as providing information about problems and solutions. We all share similar challenges with predation from crows and gulls, uncontrolled dogs, enforcement, and habitat loss and it was very interesting to learn about how neighboring communities are managing problems and issues.
Just one highlight of a day filled with helpful insights and useful information is that we can be very proud of our state—Massachusetts is at the leading edge of the Piping Plover recovery effort. The representative from New Jersey was there specifically to learn from Massachusetts conservationists on how they could possibly improve their recovery program as the New Jersey PiPl population is not growing, with fewer and fewer each year retuning to nest. As you can see from the graph provided at the meeting, the Canadian recovery is going very poorly as well.
Readers will be interested to know that our region’s Crane Beach continues to have one of their best year’s ever. Trustees of Reservations Jeff Denoncour shared information on the latest census data from 2018 and Crane’s has a whopping 76 fledglings, with 25 more chicks still yet to fledge. Because of the huge success at Cranes Beach, the northeast region, of which we are a part, has fledged a total 136 of chicks in 2018, compared to 108 in 2017, and as I said, with more fledglings still to come! The northeast region encompasses Salisbury Beach to the Boston Harbor Islands.
Jeff noted that this year they had less predation by Great Horned Owls. Because of owl predation, several years ago Crane Beach gave up on the wire exclosures and now use electric fencing extensively. The Great Horned Owls learned that the Piping Plover adults were going in an out of the exclosures and began perching on the edge of the wire, picking off the adults as they were entering and exiting the exclosure.
Crane has an excellent crew of Trustees staff monitoring the Least Terns and Piping Plovers, as well as excellent enforcement by highly trained police officers. No dogs are allowed on Crane Beach during nesting season and dogs are prevented from entering at the guarded gate. As we saw from one of the graphics presented about nesting Double-crested Cormorants, when a dog runs through a nesting area, the adults leave the nest, temporarily leaving the eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation by crows, gulls, raptors, and owls.
Crane Beach Least Tern fledgling.
Compare the Least Tern to the Common Tern in the above photo. It’s easy to see why the birds are called Least Terns; they are North America’s smallest member of the tern and gull family (Crane Beach).
Another interesting bit of information shared–if you listen to our podcasts, back in April, we talked about the potential dilemma of what would happen if Snowy Owls remained on the beaches as the Piping Plovers returned from their winter grounds. Knowing that Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are close cousins and that the Great Horned Owl eats Piping Plover chicks and adults, I was concerned that a Snowy might eat our PiPl. At one particular beach on Cape Cod, a Snowy stayed through mid-July. An adult Piping Plover skull was found in the owl’s pellet.
Snowy Owls remained in Massachusetts this year through July.
After attending the cooperators meeting, I am more hopeful than ever that our community can come together and solve the problems that are preventing our PiPl from successfully nesting and fledging chicks. What we have going in our favor is the sheer number of amazing super volunteers along with strong community-wide support.
Piping Plover fully fledged and flying up and down the beach – we”ll have these next year, I am sure!
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.