May 27, 2018
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Terns offer diving display


Although I’ve had my fill of rainy, overcast weather, there is something to be said for the allure of a coast shrouded in fog on an early summer evening.

I was walking along the pathway above the beach when I heard the unmistakable cries of terns. The calls rolled toward me, drifting through the moist air, and suddenly a bird materialized out of the fog.

The bird zipped along several feet over the water before executing a perfect dive into the sea, completely immersing itself for a scant second before bursting up into the air again with a small silver fish in its beak.

Soon other terns appeared — I noted they were common terns — and all patrolled the water a few feet beyond the tide line. Every so often one would initiate a dive only to pull up at the last second, as it realized its prey was out of reach. These spectacular maneuvers were performed with such ease and grace; I could imagine the terns were doing it just for fun.

A large rock formation jutted out into the sea at one end of the beach, forming a small cove within the cove. The terns seemed to favor this area; perhaps the combination of tidal currents and topography tended to concentrate the schools of herring the birds were after.

More terns arrived, tipped off to the presence of food by their comrades. Soon a half-dozen of the birds were all zipping, swooping and diving, giving me quite a show. Their shrill “zzrreeeee, zzrreeee,” cries, so vibrant with life and the mystery of the sea, filled the air.

A few days later, I was again treated to a show, this time at the other end of the beach. A large grassy point, buttressed by granite, forms one end of the cove in this location. The sandy bottom is abruptly halted by a wall of boulders along the beach, protecting the houses that sit there. The tide was exceptionally high, contained by the protective barrier, and the water there was deep.

It was here the terns were concentrating their fishing efforts. This time, they were only a few feet from where I stood atop the stairs leading down to the beach, which at lower tides is exposed. I had excellent views of them as they dove, and even caught a quick flash of white while they were underwater. I’d never been able to observe terns diving for fish from this perspective, and it was quite a treat.

I wondered where the terns were nesting. Although their breeding territory extends all along the coast of Maine to the Mid-Atlantic States (as well as northern Canada and small portions of the northern U.S.), the proliferation of gulls has had an impact on tern nesting success. Gulls displace terns from favorable island nesting locations, forcing them to nest on the mainland; this brings them into contact with land predators and people — not a good combination.

As a consequence, various wildlife agencies actively manage tern nesting locations, such as Machias Seal Island — which I had the wonderful fortune to visit several years ago — among others. According to “The Birds of North America,” species account for common tern, 15 island sites between Nova Scotia and New York have been restored for tern nesting.

Such restoration begins with gull removal, but more is involved. Vegetation growth usually needs to be managed, either to prevent overgrowth or to increase cover. Terns are a ground-nesting bird, as are other seabirds such as puffins. Populations of both need to be protected by careful management of their breeding sites.

The terns I saw seemed to be catching a bounty of fish; I imagined they’d be flying back to feed their chicks, if indeed they had any. I watched them disappear back into the fog, their cries drifting back to me on the wind.

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