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Elegant Terns are back at Elkhorn Slough and Monterey Bay!

Watercolor: "Tern, Tern, Tern"

Let me start by saying that there are several very good writers in my family, but I am not one of them. I'm hoping that I can let my photographs and artwork make up for my less than stellar writing skills. So, with that disclaimer...

(Mouse over photographs for captions)

Elegant Terns arrive in Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough by the thousands

I admit that I am a little obsessed with the birds that are the subject of this first blog. Elegant Terns show up here (in the Monterey Bay area) most years about midsummer. These relatives of gulls breed in southern California and the Gulf of California. Historically, about 90-95% of the entire species nested on one small island called Isla Rasa in the gulf! Sometime around the 1950's, some members of the species began moving north to nest in southern California. Still, most of these birds attempt to nest on that small island every year and share the island with other species like the Heerman Gulls. Because they have such restricted breeding grounds, Elegant Terns could become endangered if something happened to make these breeding areas less hospitable to the terns.

Elegant Terns, Moss Landing Harbor

These birds have a couple of cool behaviors that help make them so interesting to me. One thing that works well for Elegant Terns is that when the chicks reach a certain age, they gather in huge groups called creches that are attended by only a few of the adults. This gives the parents the freedom to go off in search of food to feed their youngsters. Somehow the parents are able to find their own chicks when they return with food.

Elegant Tern submerged to catch an anchovy

The way these birds catch fish is spectacular. They fly over the water searching for a fish. When they see a possible candidate, they dive into the water after it, their bodies completely submerged in many cases! If all goes well, when they emerge they are carrying a fish. When they have young, they often carry the fish away to offer it to their offspring.

Elegant Tern with anchovy

Once the young have grown enough, the parents head north with their youngsters in search of better food supplies. It turns out that Elegant Terns are particularly fond of anchovies and other small fishes. That is why they come to the Monterey Bay in years like this, when the anchovies are abundant. When they arrive here, sometimes in the thousands, the adults still need to feed their youngsters. An adult finding its own offspring to feed, among the thousands of others seems almost miraculous, but they are able to accomplish this feat over and over. It is a common sight to see the parent passing a fish to its youngster on land or in the water. In time, the young begin following their parents plaintively calling, "peep, peep, peep", begging to be fed, as the adults search for fish. Eventually, (and surely not soon enough for the tired parents!) the adolescents learn to fish for themselves. Depending on how the food resources hold out, the terns hang around for a while or head north looking for food. Eventually, they will head to the shores of South America to spend their time resting, feeding, and getting ready for the next breeding season.

Elegant Tern parent with a fish, looking for its youngster, Moss Landing Harbor

Parent passes fish to youngster

One of the champions of Elegant Terns is Dr. Enriqueta Velarde of the University of Veracruz. Her work is adding to our understanding of these birds and the kind of pressures they face. She has been working with researchers in the U.S. to gather information on why they may be changing some of their nesting habits.

Adult tern attempting to steal from an adolescent

If you find yourself in the Monterey Bay area in the mid summer or in the fall, look for these elegant birds. If you see them, watch for their acrobatic fishing skills and listen for those teenagers calling after and chasing their parents. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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