It is the Season

It is the Season

Some of you have remarked on the striking changes to the appearance of the birds as they develop their breeding plumages. Not only do they change their colors and feathers, but there are distinctive behaviors only seen during the mating and breeding season. Today we are going to talk about a really handsome bird, the Sandwich Tern. 

Sandwich Tern exhibiting the breeding strut with lowered shoulders and upright head. Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Sandwich Tern exhibiting the breeding strut with lowered shoulders and upright head.

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

They are called  Sandwich Terns because they were named by a John Latham in 1787 from a specimen (that sounds... dead, doesn't it?) found at Sandwich Bay, Kent, England. Seems there is a cool Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust there now; maybe some of my loyal readers from the UK are familiar with this?

They fly really fast, dive into the water and snatch up tiny fish. You can see they have short, stubby black legs, their bill is black with a yellow tip, and they have a great black cap. The males and females look alike year round. That glossy cap is only solid black during breeding season; the rest of the year the front part is mostly white and the rest is streaky. Not nearly as beautiful as now.

Range map for Sandwich Tern - Green is year round, Orange for Winter range and Yellow for Breeding range Used with permission for Wikipedia Commons -Thalasseus acuflavidus and Thalasseus sandvicenis map

Range map for Sandwich Tern - Green is year round, Orange for Winter range and Yellow for Breeding range

Used with permission for Wikipedia Commons -Thalasseus acuflavidus and Thalasseus sandvicenis map

As you can see, Sandwich Terns are widespread and year round residents of the Gulf Coast. They do breed and raise young here; I heard that during the year-long reconstruction of the Texas City Dike after Hurricane Ike, all kinds of terns and skimmers built nests on the open sandy areas. These kinds of shorebirds don't build nests out of twigs or sticks, they just scrape out a depression in the sand or gravel to lay one to three eggs. They are colony nesting birds and their safety is ensured by the shear numbers.

I was excited to see the Sandwich Terns were sporting solid black caps last trip the Texas City Dike. They have a great ritual where the male brings a fish to the female to start the courtship and mating that I hoped to see.

Male trying to get her attention... Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/8.0 ISO 1000

Male trying to get her attention...

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/8.0 ISO 1000

About halfway down the Texas City Dike there is a public boat ramp and several areas of concrete; old foundations and parking lots from storm-destroyed establishments. It was a really windy day and many terns and gulls were standing around, facing the wind. And the males were walking around, showing off. The one above seems to be trying to get the female's attention. See how his shoulders are dropped and neck extended? She isn't showing the same posture so I don't know if she is receptive.

Male dancing around the female, who is at least making some noise... Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Male dancing around the female, who is at least making some noise...

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

The males circled the females, strutting and stamping those little feet. This female may be saying yes, because next....

Sandwich Terns ... umm. this might be NSFW Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Sandwich Terns ... umm. this might be NSFW

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

The male mounts the female. There had been no gift of a fish as I expected and I wondered if this was preliminary mating behavior. You know, just practicing? Where was the danged fish? I had read that he presents a specific fish, if she accepts and allows him to mount, then she will take the fish during the act.

More... activity. Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

More... activity.

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Maybe this is practicing but this looked pretty real to me. It even seems like she is looking up for that fish! Not being an expert on bird mating, but looks to me like contact has been made. This pair repeated this behavior at least three times.

Sandwich Terns ... making sandwiches! Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Sandwich Terns ... making sandwiches!

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Trying to take photos of ... action... you tend to just focus through the viewfinder on what you are trying to capture. Looking up, I realized there was a danged orgy going on. Everybody was doing it!

But where was the gift of the fish I had heard about? I have seen terns flying overhead taking small fish to a nesting female, but I thought this fish gift was required before they would mate. So the female could judge his ability as a provider. And then...

Male bringing gifts Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Male bringing gifts

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

There was a male with a fish! He offered it to another tern, who was not interested at all. He followed her for quite a while...

Male Sandwich Tern being snubbed... Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Male Sandwich Tern being snubbed...

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

She kept turning away and ignoring him until he finally flew away. My research shows during real mating, a rejected male will offer his fish to subsequent females if he is not successful with the first.

So, maybe this was just practice. It is still early and some of the birds had some white left in their caps. I can't really say; I report, you decide.

Pair of Laughing Gulls in full breeding colors Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

Pair of Laughing Gulls in full breeding colors

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

The Laughing Gulls were looking rather friendly, too... They too have solid black caps and dark red bills only during breeding season. The rest of the year they have streaky white on their heads. I saw some pairs mating earlier, but they were too far away for a good photo.

And look who is here! Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600sec. f/6.3 ISO 640

And look who is here!

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600sec. f/6.3 ISO 640

There is always a cat. This one was at the very end of the Dike, past the 5 mile marker. I have seen several hanging around the bait shops at the entrance to the dike now that I look for them, but I never ever dreamed they would forage out this far.

Have you noticed any courting behavior among the birds in your neighborhood? Any baby birds you have had to rescue? Let me know in the comments below.

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