I spent about ten years as a travelling naturalist. Well, not ten years solid, but during those ten years we spent a cumulative 24 months on cruise ships. It was a pretty sweet gig, and one of the best aspects of it was that when the ship was in port, I had zero official duties. We would walk off the ship first thing in the morning—literally the first off the ship, most days—and would spend the day doing the things we love. Which, depending on the destination, was bird photography, museums, or drinking coffee. Sometimes all three.
Life’s a beach when you’re a royal tern
My first gig was in the Caribbean, and at the end of each ten-day cruise we’d have a day off in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, where we would hit the beach. Not to sunbathe, usually, but to people-watch and birdwatch. On those days we could usually count on seeing the spectacular royal tern fishing or lounging along the shoreline.
For those of us who grew up around common terns (or Forster’s terns for us prairie folk), these terns are huge. They’re part of a group of large crested terns, with the cool punk haircut on the back of the black crest.
Royal terns: master fliers
These birds are absolute masters of the air. Swift and powerful, they make short work of sardines and other schooling fish that they espy from above and plunge into the water to catch.
Other birds appear to envy their skill; frigatebirds chase them to relieve them of their hard-earned prey but to no avail: this is one bird even the frigate can’t catch.
Royal terns are highly social and remarkably chill for terns. By that I mean they get along well with others of their kind, with a minimum of the intra-colonial warfare one usually associates with gulls and terns. Not that their colonies are particularly pleasant places to visit, with their habit of defecating and regurgitating waste right upon their nests. But peaceful, in their own disgusting way.
Rising up in a royal dread
The most interesting thing about royal tern colonies might be the way they (and other terns) sometimes rise up in what’s known as as a dread or a panic. I confess I haven’t witnessed this personally, as most of my visits to tern-town were during the non-breeding season. But picture it: they will be noisily going about their business in a huge breeding colony when, on some unknowable cue, they all fall silent and rise to the air. There they circle, without a sound, for twenty minutes or so before returning to their nests.
Nobody knows what sets them off, or what they gain by doing it. It kind of freaks me out to think about it.
At any rate, it works for them. Royal terns are successful birds, living in good numbers all along the warm-water coasts of the US, the Caribbean, and Mexico, with a separate population in South America.
They’re organized, too, in their own way. They’re not terribly prolific, laying one egg per pair. But their colonies are vast, comprising upwards of ten thousand birds. And when that chick hatches, its parents enroll it within a day or two into a giant crèche made up of all the royal tern babies and usually all the Sandwich tern babies (a related species) too. It’s an enormous tern day-care system, and somehow the parents, at the end of a long foraging voyage, manage to relocate their one chick among the thousands and thousands of needy babies, most likely by sound. I can’t imagine.
If you ever have the pleasure of a tropical holiday, look for the royal terns. Like so many white seabirds, they blend into the general ambience of a beach scene, but if you make an effort, you’ll pick them out. Look for that punk crest and the solid orange bill. Early mornings, you’ll see them patrolling the waterfront for small fish; by afternoon they’re loafing on the beach like any sensible creature in the tropics.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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