A Tale of Three Fishes

A Tale of Three Fishes

Most of my photographer friends are off chasing tiny, flitting warblers during Spring Migration and I like them, too ... but it is a whole lot of work for a splash of color that is usually just sitting on a stick. Oh, I have been out and even got that great photo of a Painted Bunting I showed you last week, but most of those little birds are deep in the foliage or shadows. This season has been rather frustrating for me but there are plenty of other birds to photograph in breeding colors and exhibiting mating behaviors.

Such as Terns. One of the fascinating courting rituals is the offering of a fish by the male to the female. Often he has to repeat the behavior several times before she accepts his overtures and agrees to mate. 

The Texas City Dike is a wonderful place for observing Terns. There are a lot of places to park and get close to the birds. Put the sun at your back, bring a crate to sit on, set your tripod low, and follow all the activity on the beach or rocks.  And if the wind is out of the south, the birds on the bay side will be flying into the wind and that slows them down for your images. Pick a cloudy day for the best photos; the harsh sun will make shadows and it will be more difficult to expose correctly for the high contrast black and white birds.

Forster's Tern calling and calling Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~  f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Forster's Tern calling and calling
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~  f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

We were driving down the first part of the Dike and saw a lone Forster's Tern sitting on a rock in the surf. We assumed it was a female as she was calling and that is a clue she was expecting someone. We parked near by; Bill maneuvered the truck so he could comfortably shoot from the driver's side window, and I got out and propped up the big lens across the hood on a bean bag. Not ideal, but it works. When I was shooting the Sony 70-400 G2 I could often shoot over his shoulder while seated on the passenger side, but that doesn't work with the larger lens.

Male Forster's Tern passing fish to waiting female Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Male Forster's Tern passing fish to waiting female
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

We didn't have to wait too long. The male will circle the female, emitting answering cries to her calls before he swoops down and gives her the fish on the fly. He does not stop. I had figured out he would come from behind her as flying into the wind would be much easier for him. I set my shutter speed to 1/2000 second and waited. And I got the shot even though the top wing is out of the frame. If I had been using my tripod I might have done better, but I am still happy with the image. Sometimes just setting up the tripod will startle the birds and they fly away.

We got a lot of shots of her calling after this as we waited the male to return. Then for no apparent reason, she flew off. A few minutes later, the male returned with a fish (you can hear him calling as he comes back) and ... she was gone.  Do you think he found her? Did he give his fish to a different female? How in the world can they tell each other apart?

Forster's Tern : Passes fish on the fly; does not stop. Medium sized tern with long forked tail. This time of year the breeding plumage shows black cap, orange bill with black tip and bright orange legs. And it is Forster's not Forester's. We have them year round on the Texas coast (residents plus migrants on their way north to Canada in the Spring). They build floating nests along coastal bays and inlets but also on inland lakes and marshes. The chicks are fed by both adults as they cannot fly until 4-6 weeks old, and often beg to be fed even after they learn to fly. More info in the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas.

Royal Tern male with fish offering. Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Royal Tern male with fish offering.
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1250

Presenting a fish is a common courtship ritual with terns. Royal Terns are one of the larger terns and easy to recognize during the breeding season by their bright orange bill, black cap and black legs. We watched this guy strut around a female near the breakers at the dike. Note the lowered wings, and erect posture. He will circle the female in an impressive dance, even stomping his little feet.

Royal Tern making an important announcement Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Royal Tern making an important announcement
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

If she likes the offering, mating generally follows. And the male loudly announces the fact. Over and over again.

Royal Tern: Offers fish after circling around the female with lowered wings.  Year-round resident on our Texas Gulf coast. Terns nest communally and lay one egg in a shallow depression in the sand. They seem to time the egg laying with their neighbors.  Both parents incubate the egg, which hatches in about 30 days. Within 2-3 days of hatching, the chick leaves the nest and joins others in a "creche". Both parents fly off and bring fish to feed their own offspring. Evidently they can recognize its cry. I would guess all this happens on the shifting barrier islands as I have never seen any nesting sites on publicly accessible beaches.

Sandwich Tern with fish for female Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Sandwich Tern with fish for female
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

And then my favorite. I just love the Sandwich Terns! They were originally described by John Latham in 1787 and are named after the town of Sandwich in County Kent, England as it represented the type locality where they are found. And Sandwich is an Old English term meaning "a trading center on the sand" as wic is a trading post. It is a very old and historic town as it was once a major port. Don't you know the story of the Earl of Sandwich ordering slices of meat wrapped in bread so he didn't have to stop gambling to eat his meal? He was the founder of fast food.

Sandwich Terns have the typical black cap, but sport a bright yellow tip to their black bills. Their wings are long and pointed and they too strut around with lowered wings and fish offerings.

Sandwich Terns starting to court... Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Sandwich Terns starting to court...
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

In the photo above, the male has enticed an interested female. He is starting to mount her, she is reaching back for the fish. Often it is exchanged during the actual mating, so I was plenty excited to get a photo of that!

Something went wrong... Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Something went wrong...
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

I don't know if she was too eager or what happened here. She reaches back for the fish and he is literally knocked off his feet. Or he is moving out of her way. But he obviously has changed his mind about giving her the fish. I read in one paper about courtship feeding that early in the season the male is hesitant to relinquish the fish. Maybe he wants to check out all the females before he commits.

Disagreement over the fish Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Disagreement over the fish
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

At this point he has moved to her side and they both have possession of the fish.

Male retrieves his fish offering... Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Male retrieves his fish offering...
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Here, the male has taken his fish offering away from the seemingly dumbfounded female. I was yelling at her "Find another one, you can do better, he is too fickle!"

Male left alone with his fish... Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Male left alone with his fish...
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.0 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

I doubt my frantic instructions made a difference, but she took her dignity and left him standing alone with his fish. It is hard to keep up with individual birds in a noisy, squawking group, but he walked off to offer his fish to a new female. I hope the rejected bachelorette found a new suitor.

Sandwich Tern: They feed by plunging headfirst into the water from flight; sometimes they even catch insects in flight. Sandwich Terns also nest on the open beach, often near Royal Terns. Both parents will incubate the 1-2 eggs. Young chicks may gather in "creche" and they stay with their parents for another 4 months. Later in the year you can see youngsters (who can fly and fish on their own) beg to be fed when near parents or even other adults.

Now I think you know why I prefer the shorebirds and waders to those cute colorful birds. Yes, the little guys are beautiful and sing their hearts out, but most interesting behavior is hidden in the foliage and much more difficult to observe. Terns, and a lot of other bigger birds put it all out there for anyone to see.

Note: No adventure next week; I am leaving soon to attend .... wait for it....  my 50th High School Reunion! I am combining that with a trip to North Texas to see my sister so no time to do a blog post. We have a couple of places picked out to chase birds and no telling what else I will find to photograph.

What do you think of the terns? Would you accept a suitor that brought you a fish? And... have you ever been to your high school reunion? Would you even consider going? Let me know in the comments below.

May Short Stories

May Short Stories

Brilliant Birds on the Move

Brilliant Birds on the Move