The warm, talc sands of Florida’s Gulf Coast are a wintering hot spot for thousands of migrant birds, as well as the already impressive array of resident birds. The balmy waters provide hungry beaks with fish, mollusks, and crustaceans throughout the northern winter. The coastline is the perfect hunting ground for a nature enthusiast, keen to photograph wildlife that has become accustomed to people. One family of birds that calls the Florida coastline, and lagoons home, is the tern family.
There are forty five species of tern occupying water courses around the world. In many places, I have found these skydiving speedsters difficult to photograph, but on the winter beaches of Florida, the second largest member of the family is not at all camera-shy – The Royal Tern.
Second only in size to the Caspian tern, the Royal tern measures in at a body length of up to 20 inches (50 cm) and a wingspan of up to 53 inches (135 cm). During the breeding season the bird’s cap becomes completely black. The oldest recorded Royal tern was found to be over 30 years old. Its habitat is almost exclusively coastal waters where it hunts for small fish and shrimps by diving, beak first, into shallow waters.
I have seen these beautiful terns on many of Florida’s gulf beach locations, but it was on the warm white sand bars at Honeymoon Island that I was able to walk among them. A flock of birds sat chattering on a sand bar surrounded by water so shallow that it had moved from warm to hot. The flock must have been 50 strong, made up of a couple of Laughing gulls, a dozen Sandwich terns, a single Black Skimmer and the rest were the unmistakable, high-visibility orange-billed Royal terns.
While my family prepare to launch themselves into warm seas, I picked up the camera and walked slowly to the flock. I had taken a couple of shots when the obligatory child ran through waving his arms, chasing the birds. More patient than I used to be, I sighed and guessed that the opportunity was gone. Remarkable the terns just lifted a few feet in the air, where they hung on the wind, before gracefully circling back to the same spot that they were in before the terrorizer arrived. Unfazed!
I watched a number of young birds, already into their first winter, begging for food and sometimes receiving it from adults. The Royal tern young will stay with the parents for several months and even migrate with them. Clearly they are not above taking advantage of mum and dad’s generosity, even though they are well able to fish for themselves.
Royal terns maintain a stable population around the world, although it is in Florida where numbers have plummeted. 96% of the Florida population has been lost since 1966, primarily as a result of habitat loss and nest site disturbance.
Like so many other coastal bird species, these wonderful creatures ask for clean water, a food source and enough undisturbed land to build their nest and raise a family. By carefully maintaining these habitats, we assure the survival of our coastal bird communities. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.
Next time you see a flock of gulls on a beach, take a closer look to see if there are terns among them. These beautifully graceful birds may go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
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