Beyond the BackyardMatanzas Tern Colony

Cute Baby Birds at the Summer Haven Least Tern Colony are Totally Worth the Drive!

Rich thought I was insane when I woke up at 4am on my off-Friday and drove up to St. Augustine.  He thought I was even crazier when he heard me describe how I lowered the tripod and lay flat on my stomach to photograph the birds.  But look at the results…. :-D

Least Tern

Least Tern

The Least Terns come to nest at St. Augustine each year.  Last week I drove up to Matanzas Inlet and did not find them, then a helpful Audubon person redirected me to this year’s colony location at Summer Haven.  I got there at sunrise, walked out to the beach, and immediately heard the terns.  They nest up at the edge of the dunes, inside a protected area.  I edged up to the area carefully, trying not to disturb the birds.  They are incredibly protective of their nests, and some of the nests are quite close to the edge of the roped-off area.  The whole colony takes off to attack any people who get too close.  I found that I did well by finding a good couple of nests, getting low quickly, and then sitting still until they got used to me.  So I actually took all these pictures from within about a five-foot area.  I didn’t even make it all the way down to the other end of the colony!

A lot of birds are on eggs (the Audubon told me that there are at least 100 nests with over 30 chicks so far). The nests are tiny hollows in the beach, nothing more.  The eggs are colored so that they blend in to the shells on the beach.

Least Tern on eggs

Least Tern on eggs

I was amazed at the number of tiny fish brought in to the colony by these birds.  The fish are passed from bird to bird during mating rituals (and no, it’s not too late in the season for that!)  The birds who are on eggs have to eat, too, so their partners fly in often with fish.  The sun wasn’t out for most of the morning, but I was lucky that it was out when a nice bird landed with a fish at just the right sun angle.

Least Tern with Fish

Least Tern with Fish

I found a nest with tiny chicks not too far from where I was sitting.  They could barely drag themselves to their feet to follow Mom around when she wasn’t brooding them.  They were adorable!!  I couldn’t resist making a little video.

Another nest, the one closest to me, had two slightly older chicks in it.  These guys had no trouble walking.  Mom stayed on top of them for the first half of my visit, making me wonder if I was ever going to get a glimpse of them.  But then they woke up, wiggled out from under Mom, and made a photographer very happy…

Least Tern chick

Least Tern chick

The babies are well-trained by their parents to flatten themselves in the sand at any sign of danger.  At one point the whole colony took off in dismay.  Mom stayed on one chick, and the other chick went flat next to her.

Least Terns

Least Terns

One chick was more adventurous than the other.  I wonder if he’s a day older?  He liked to strike out on his own and wander away from the nest.  He looks so little on that big beach!

Least Tern chick

Least Tern chick

Long before his brother woke up, the adventurous chick was demanding breakfast from his mom.  He went up to her and tapped her on the beak, reminding her that his stomach was empty.

Least Tern mom and chick

Least Tern mom and chick

Then, after Mama didn’t seem to get the message about her offspring’s hunger, he went around behind her and tugged at her tail feathers.  I had to laugh – this reminded me so much of our cat Squirt!

Least Tern mom and chick

Least Tern mom and chick

Mom tucked her little guys under her wing to wait for Dad to bring in breakfast.  I’d been hoping for an opportunity to photograph the “chick under the wing” moment.  I didn’t expect to combine it with a “birdie butt” shot!

Least Tern mom with her chicks

Least Tern mom with her chicks

At one point, Mom left the babies by themselves in their little hollow.  They stayed together, fussing at each other (I guess both chicks were hungry by now.)  I really like the shot below, as it shows the beach environment and how well these little guys blend in to their surroundings.  Nature amazes me.

Least Tern chicks

Least Tern chicks

She moved her chicks to a deeper, apparently more comfortable hollow.  At the new hollow, the babies stayed tucked under her wing for longer.  Soon she left them again.  The chicks were hoping that she went to remind Dad that they were hungry!  They took a little nap while they waited for her to come back.

Least Tern chicks

Least Tern chicks

You should have heard the fuss when Papa started to approach!  A fish!  A fish!  He’s bringing a fish!

Anticipation of a meal

Anticipation of a meal

I got a few cute shots of the babies with fish in their mouths.  The fish that they ate were a little small, but the babies already know how to swallow them whole.

My favorite fishy shot was the one below.  The younger chick was under Mom’s wing while the older chick was off exploring.  Dad came in with a fish.  I had set my aperture to 8.0, trying to keep all the birds in focus, but I didn’t quite get it.  It was funny to watch Dad offer the fish to Mom, who seemed to say that Adventuresome Chick needed to eat it.  So Dad went over to his little explorer, who refused the fish.  “But Dad!  There’s a whole beach to explore!  How can you expect me to stop and eat?”  Dad tried to feed him several times, then ended up eating the fish himself.

Least Tern family

Least Tern family

As I was getting ready to go, I saw the birds agitated.  (For once, they were annoyed at someone other than me!!)  A bunch of them had their wings up.  I tried to see what was going on, and I spotted a crab running through the colony.  The birds fussed and fussed.  The crab was easily bigger than most of the chicks.  The terns took turns in racing at him, flashing their wings, and screaming at him.  He scurried off through the colony, and it was good luck for me that part of his path brought him straight towards me.  What a great picture to end such a cool morning! :)

Least Terns chasing off crab

Least Terns chasing off crab

It was hard to tear myself away, but disturbing the birds and keeping the parents off their eggs and young chicks can be fatal.  So as it approached 8:30, I reluctantly got up, tried not to startle the birds, and made myself leave.  The colony is located about 15 minutes away from the Alligator Farm, so I went there for an hour or so to round out the morning.  But as awesome as that rookery is, it was anti-climatic after my morning with the terns.