Least Tern Courtship


Ever since my terrific morning photographing the Least Terns at Fort Matanzas last spring, I’ve been counting the days until their return. I couldn’t wait to have more opportunities to photograph these little birds. They return to Florida in the last few weeks of April and begin their courtship behaviors immediately. Their nests are tiny indentures in the sand, and their babies will hatch in late May to early June.

The Least Terns are the smallest in their family of birds. There are several hundred birds in this colony near Fort Matanzas in St. Augustine. The Audubon society ropes off their nesting area so that people cannot accidentally walk on their nests. Not that you could miss the adult birds…they fly, they fuss, and if you get too close, they dive-bomb you! They were not particularly defensive last weekend since their babies haven’t hatched yet. Some birds were already on eggs, and others were still courting.

The exchange of fish is an important part of the courtship ritual. The male will fly in with a fish, try to find his mate in the group of birds below, then land and hand her the fish. Sometimes she accepts it willingly. Sometimes its not that easy. The pair of birds below tried several times…the guy walked in, handed her the fish, and then took it away. He walked away, fish dangling in his mouth, and re-considered his options. Then he walked back, started to hand her the fish, and then again, walked away. There wasnt a third time – she flew away! It cracked me up.

The terns are not the only photogenic subjects at this beach. The Wilson’s Plovers also nest there. When Michael and I first arrived, the first bird to greet us was a tiny Wilson’s Plover. After I settled down in the sand, I noticed one running across the beach. I loved how he posed against the distant green background.

This little plover ran right up to me and posed in front of The Beast. I held my breath, mentally begging him not to move until I got a few frames. He didn’t! Now if only he had shown me his nest… Smile

The other fun part of the morning was photographing the sunrise. The sun was already coming up as I arrived, and I didn’t have much time to find a good vantage point with the rocks in the foreground. I had to edit out some severe lens flare. Next time I want to arrive earlier and make sure I have my ND filters on hand. I’d like to try some slow-motion shots of the waves, and try to catch the waves breaking over the rocks. There’s always a reason to go back… Smile

Want to learn more about nature photography at Matanzas Tern Colony?

Check out my Matanzas Tern Colony page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!

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