November 2014 Bird Photo of the Month

Royal Terns being royal! Shall we dance! © Robert Feldberg
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus)

Shall we dance? Courtship has specific rituals, no matter what the species. With an offering of a tasty fish from the salty sea, the male Royal Tern holds out his offering to an interested mate. She seems to dance, responding with spirit. Circling each other, both have crests erect showing off their form and feathers to entice.

Robert Feldberg, with his Canon 7D 1/2500 at f/5.6, 400 mm lens, took the photograph at Ft. Desoto Beach on Florida’s west coast in April, the beginning of the breeding season. Royal Terns choose nests near abundant saltwater small fish in extremely dense breeding colonies on remote and isolated sandy beaches. Both parents cooperate on nest building.

Nests are readily abandoned if disturbed. After hatching, the fledglings are moved in three days to crèches (nurseries for pre-fledging chicks). Parents plunge-dive from 30 feet to capture small fish to feed them. After fledging, juveniles stay with their parents for five to eight months, begging loudly and successfully for food. Young birds require much practice before becoming adept at plunge-dive fishing.

During the 1980s, Royal Terns nested in the thousands on Merritt Island and northeastern Florida Beaches as well as in North Carolina and Virginia. However, recent breeding-bird surveys reveal only two confirmed locations on our West Coast. From October to February there is an influx of often hundreds of Royal Terns migrating from breeding areas as far North as coastal Maryland and west as the Texas Gulf coast. Some continue on to Peru and Brazil, enjoying tropical seas.

After pairing, their solidly black crown will molt to white forehead and crown that we see the rest of the year. When weather chills or the tide is high, you can see terns on ocean beaches huddled together protectively, all heads facing the same direction into the wind.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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