Gather Ye Tern Chicks While Ye May…

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Last Saturday I had the privilege of photographing the Least Tern Colony near Fort Matanzas in St. Augustine.  The Least Terns are the smallest terns in their family, and each year they come to St. Augustine in the spring to lay their eggs and raise their families.  Their nests are nothing more than tiny indentations in the sand, and the local Audubon groups monitor the colony nesting site and provide bird stewardship.

I was joined by fellow photographers and friends Michael, Raees, Kathy, and Jim.  We found a nest that was very close to the edge of the protected area, and we all settled in the sand to photograph the tiny chicks peeking out from Mama’s wing.  It was tricky to settle low enough to be at a bird’s-eye view, but high enough that you could clearly see the chicks.  I would guesstimate that these chicks were a day or two old.  They spent a lot of time sleeping under Mama.

The morning was very cloudy, and it wasn’t until the sun started to peek out that the babies became more active.  We were happy when one crawled out from under Mama, yawned, and plopped in the sand in front of her.

It’s so sweet to watch the babies cuddle under Mama’s wing.  She has plenty of room under each wing for a chick.  She’s also pretty patient as she sits there while the little ones wiggle underneath her!  I thought this little beak-to-beak moment was especially sweet.

The beach has a lot of distracting vegetation, which provides cover and camouflage for the baby terns.  It’s amazing how easily the chicks blend in to their surroundings. When Mom or Dad gives the call of danger, usually because a gull is flying overhead or a crab is running too close, the chicks know to drop to the ground and flatten themselves in the sand.

Some of these pictures have had beach vegetation removed, so as to show off the tiny birds at their cutest.  But a couple of the nests were conveniently located near smooth, white beach – no Photoshop required!

I was lucky to have the opportunity to photograph these guys before Tropical Storm Beryl made landfall.  You can see from the sunrise picture below that Beryl’s clouds were already in St. Augustine several days before the storm made landfall.  (Not exactly the sunrise images I had hoped to take over the rocks!)  Rich and I had made plans to spend the Memorial Day weekend in St. Augustine, doing photography in the mornings and historical stuff during bad light.  :)  But then Tropical Storm Beryl formed in the Atlantic and aimed for St. Augustine.  Rich and I decided to head out before the thunderstorms and wind.  It was sad to leave my birds, knowing they had so little to protect them from the winds and rain.  But the chicks are stronger than they look, and even as tiny as they are, they are big enough to swim and run for higher ground.  The Audubon society checked on the colony after the storm passed, and found about 50 remaining nests of the original 125.  They did see several chicks that survived the storm.  Hopefully the little cuties that I photographed here are some of the survivors!


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!

Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!

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