Tag Archives: Sternula antillarum

Learning to Fly!

Three days after hatching the Rosetti’s Least Tern parents moved the chicks further down the beach and deep into the roped off sanctuary. Tiny gray and white speckled fluff balls well-hidden amongst the rocky shoreline became increasingly difficult to see.

Well-camouflaged and nearly impossible to see one-week-old Least Tern chicks.

Every now and then though I would catch a glimpse and one of the best moments was watching both chicks test their wings in short little take offs. Stretching wide their wings and in little fits and bursts, the flights lasted about two- to three-feet in length, and equally as high. After witnessing the tremendous hardships the Least Tern colony at Winthrop had undergone this nesting season, I was over joyed to see at least one family hit this milestone.

One-week-old Least Tern chick feeding.

Two-week-old Least Tern chick.

Eighteen-day-old Least Tern chick taking shelter under beach vegetation on a scorchingly hot day in July.

Eagerly waiting to be fed.

Airborne!

Winthrop Shores Reservation Beaches

STUCK BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

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.

OUTSTANDING COASTAL WATERBIRD CONSERVATION COOPERATORS MEETING!

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.

American Oystercatchers

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!

Two-Day-Old Least Tern Chicks

Clamoring for dinner, feed Me, feed Me!

In only one day’s time, you can see the teeny shorebirds gaining strength. As Dad approaches with dinner, the two-day-old Least Tern chicks stretch and flap their wings and open wide their beaks. The noisiest and flappiest is fed first. After depositing a minnow in one beak, off he flies to find dinner for the second sibling.

Camouflaged

The polka-dot fluff balls blend perfectly with the surrounding sand and rocks. The brilliant red inside the chicks mouth makes it easier for the adult terns to find them against the monochromatic pebbly beach habitat.

Waiting for dinner.

The tern parents will share feeding their chicks and fledglings non-stop for weeks; the chicks won’t be on their own for another two months.

For the first several days after hatching, Least Tern chicks keep fairly close to Mom in scooped out scrapes and natural divots in the sand, or well-hidden hidden behind rocks and beach vegetation.Tiny Least Tern Chick camouflaged in the sand, flanked by an adult Least Tern and Piping Plover male passing by (right).

The Rosetti’s Piping Plover fledglings (three) sharing the nesting site with the Least Tern Rosetti’s family.

Least Tern One Day Old Chicks!

The Rosetti’s Least Terns hatched both eggs and both are chicks are doing beautifully!

Least Tern eggs are astonishingly well camouflaged on a pebbly beach, making them nearly impossible to see. It’s easy to understand why the species is threatened, and in some regions, endangered. Least Terns nest on sandy beaches with little vegetation, the same type of beach habitat that people love. Piping Plovers and Least Terns often nest in association with each other. In Massachusetts, the Least Tern is considered a Species of Special Concern.

Mom and Dad Least Terns take turns brooding the eggs. Here they are changing places. Least Terns are monogamous and the Rosetti’s Least Terns are especially good parents.

Least Terns are semi-precocial. Like Piping Plovers, which are fully precocial, Least Terns are mobile after one or two days and can leave the nest.

Unlike Piping Plovers, they cannot feed themselves and will be fed for the next eight weeks by Mom and Dad, a diet consisting mostly of tiny fish.

Tiny minnows, for tiny chicks. Dad does most of the feeding while Mom mostly broods the babies during the first few days. As the nestlings grow, the parents feed the chicks increasingly larger fish.

First day venturing away from the nest, and then returning to Mom for warmth and protection.

Just as the eggs are perfectly camouflaged, so too are the tiny nestlings.

Almost as adorable as are Piping Plover chicks are Least Tern chicks. However, they are much, much harder to film and to photograph. Least Terns are shyer of humankind than are Piping Plovers. Anyone who has seen PiPl in action know that they have a high tolerance for people and may come right up to you especially if you are standing perfectly still and are perfectly quiet. Least Terns on the other hand are elusive and skittish. The nestlings quickly take cover behind a rock or clump of beach vegetation when disturbed. The Mom and Dad when both courting and nesting will let you know if you are too close by dive bombing and if you still can’t take a hint, will poop on your head. If either happens, then you know for sure you are way too close and are interfering with the chicks feeding. Back away and observe from a more considerate (considerate-to-the-Terns distance that is).

Unfortunately, I recently observed a fellow photographer repeatedly being dive-bombed by a nesting pair of Terns, and that person has a humongously long telephoto lens. She would have gotten perfectly lovely photos from a distance more respectful of the Terns.

Fishing For Sex

FISHING FOR SEX

Or is it Sex for Fish? –The Quid Pro Quo Courtship of the Least Tern

While learning more about Piping Plovers on North Shore beaches I happened to be on Winthrop Shore Beach on an afternoon in May when dozens and dozens of Least Terns were pairing up in an elaborate dance of courtship and mating. It was fascinating to observe their courtship feeding and I was so curious to learn more.

That very same afternoon, the “Rosetti’s” Piping Plovers were mating, too. Well known to the area is a pair of Plovers that nest every year directly in front of Café Rosetti’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located on the main boulevard that runs along the beach. The Rosetti’s Plovers are very successful and each year they fledge a clutch of chicks. This year was no exception!

For the past several months I have been documenting through film and photographs the Rosetti’s Plovers and the Rosetti’s Terns, along with a family of PiPl at Revere Beach (more about the Winthrop and Revere Beach’s PiPl in future posts). Both species of birds are on the state and federal threatened species list. Piping Plovers and Least Terns began nesting on the area’s urban beaches as a direct result of the Boston Harbor cleanup, a wonderful, and very surprising to all involved, turn of events. In some regions, both species share the same habitat, as is the case with Winthrop Shore Reservation.

The more we learn about how and why Plovers (and other species of threatened shorebirds) successfully nest on other north of Boston much loved and much utilized beaches, the more we can help our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers successfully nest in years to come.

During the breeding season Least Terns perform courtship displays in the air and on the ground. In dramatic aerial display, a fish-carrying male is chased by the female, sometimes up to four females.

On the ground, the male parades his fish to a prospective mate. With fish dangling from his bill, he bobs his head from side-to side, then opens and closes his wings over the female.

The male mounts the female, still with fish dangling. During copulation he passes the fish to the female.

The funniest thing is, when the female allows the male to mount, she sometimes snatches the fish and flies away before mating has occurred.

No privacy, and lots of piracy!

The male continues to feed the female throughout the incubation period. Both parents incubate the eggs however, the female does about eighty percent of the brooding, while the male provides most of the fish for she and the chicks.

When one adult Least Tern feeds another, whether during courtship when the pair are first becoming established, or during the incubation period, this behavior is called “courtship feeding.”

The courtship feeding display perhaps provide the female tern the assurance that her male mate will be a good provider of fish for both she and the young. Both male and female Least Terns feed the chicks for the first several months after hatching; the better the fisherman, the stronger the chicks. Studies have shown too that courtship feeding provides the female with considerable nutritional benefit. The number of eggs, and weight of the eggs, are determined by the female’s nutritional status and how much food is fed her by her mate.

In Massachusetts, Least Terns primarily eats fish, including Sand Lance, Herring, and Hake. They also eat insects and crustaceans.

And we have a nest, with two eggs!

Read more about Winthrop Shore Reservation here.

Winthrop Shore Reservation Nesting Bird Observers

PIPING PLOVER UPDATE – WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Pip, the day before he was killed.

You may be asking, “where are the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers now?” Surprisingly, they are still around! After the night the last chick was killed (tracks point to a skirmish with a dog and several people in the nesting area), two Piping Plovers were reported at Cape Hedge Beach the following evening. Rockport resident Gail, who first reported the sighting, and PiPl volunteer monitor Laurie Sawin and I, found one at Cape Hedge the next morning, and by the next day, two had returned to the roped off area at #3 boardwalk!

Everyday since, either Greenbelt’s Dave McKinnon, my husband Tom, Deborah Cramer, or myself have spotted at least one in the cordoned off #3.

Recent PiPl sightings at the Good Harbor Beach nesting area.

Our thoughts are to leave some part of the roping up as long as the Piping Plovers are still using it as a sanctuary during high tide when the beach is crowded. For a second and even more important reason, many of us would like to see part of the cordoned off area stay in place for the simple reason it is helping with dune recovery.

You may recall that during late winter we had back to back nor’easters, which had a devastating effect on Good Harbor Beach in that much of the beach’s sand was washed away. The beach dropped about ten feet, which now causes the tide to come up high to the edge of the bluff. Beach grass and beach vegetation will help prevent future washouts. Because the area around #3 has been roped of since mid-April, a fantastic patch of beach grass has begun to take hold!!! If we leave a narrow strip roped off from the public, about ten to fifteen feet wide, running the length of the beach and around the creek bend, this simple step alone will have a marked impact on the overall health of the dune habitat.

Beach plants help prevent erosion while also providing shade and shelter for tiny shorebirds.

A pair of one-day-old Least Tern chicks finding shade.