Speaking of Nature: Least terns in love

  • A male least tern droops his wings and does some "sky pointing" after presenting his mate with a fish. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 7/27/2020 8:42:55 AM

To finish off the month of July, I shall regale you with one final story from my trip to Cape Cod. As was the case with my previous stories from this trip, the scene will be a thin area of sandy beach known as “The Strip” by the locals in Mashpee. All you have to do is imagine a very long and very slender peninsula of pure sand that acts as a natural breakwater for a sheltered bay behind it. At over a half-mile in length, this strip of sand offered a wonderful walk on both the ocean and bay sides and provided me with some outstanding photo opportunities.

So there I was, barefoot in the sand. I had left my shoes by the entrance to the beach, and I had traveled all the way out to the end of the strip on the ocean side and I was more than halfway back along the bay side. I had been walking for more than a mile and I had only seen a handful of people the whole time, which I thought to be strange for around noontime. Strange as it might have been, however, it was glorious.

The sun was out, but there were high clouds that softened the light and prevented any harsh shadows from forming. I had managed to find and photograph the piping plover chicks featured in my July 6 column and I was simply enjoying myself on the way home. That’s when I noticed a wonderful display of romance in the avian world.

Among the birds that populate the ocean coast of our great state is a bird known as the least tern (Sternula antillarum). The smallest of our North American terns, the least tern is a graceful, gorgeous flier that feeds on small fish caught by diving into the water face first. This is in definite contrast to the osprey (Pandion haliaetus), which goes for fish feet first.

During the breeding season, there is a lot of pressure associated with the selection of the right mate. Least terns are monogamous so they cannot afford to choose a mate poorly. The real question, then, is how to choose? Least terns do this with an elaborate display known to ornithologists as the “fish flight.” A male tern will catch a fish and then broadcast his accomplishment by flying around and making a great deal of noise. Females who take notice will then chase him around, which gives both sexes a chance to assess the general health and stamina of the other. “Ooo, look at how he flies! Oh, she can keep up with me! My, what a wonderful fisherman he is!”

Then the birds will land on the beach and the male will commence with a great deal of exaggerated strutting. While watching this particular behavior, I couldn’t help but add in some additional internal monologue that I imagined the male might be thinking. “Oh yeah, look at me. Oh yeah, look at my fish. How do you like me now?”

After enough strutting and puffy-chested self-aggrandizement, the male will offer the fish to his “girlfriend.” If she accepts the fish, then she has taken a step toward being his mate. He may even droop his wings and commence with another display called “sky pointing.” Both birds will be happy with their choice and they can then turn their attention to the important task of laying eggs, incubating eggs and then raising chicks to fledging age. This can be difficult, so an effective pair is essential.

It may seem strange to attribute human emotions to the behavior of birds, but it is also easy because the motivation behind many animal behaviors is somewhat universal. I shall use myself as an example. During the spring and summer months, I spend a lot of time looking for flowers while mowing my lawn. I intentionally mow around certain flowers in certain places and this leaves my yard looking a bit ragged sometimes, but there is a method to my madness. After sparing the flowers, I will walk around the yard and pick them. Sometimes, a single blossom is all I want, while other times I go for a full bouquet of wildflowers, but my ultimate goal is always the same: I go into the house, puff up my chest just a little, and then present the flowers to my beautiful wife Susan. During this courtship display, my inner monologue is usually something like, “Oh yeah, look at me. Oh yeah, look at my flowers. How do you like me now?” So which is the stranger animal; the male least tern, or me?

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years and he has been giving flowers to Susan for 17 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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