Beyond the BackyardMatanzas Tern Colony

Least Terns in Love

I spent a lot of time with the Least Terns this spring.  At Fort De Soto, I observed their courtship several times.  As you may remember from my previous post, the terns exchange fish as the male proves to his prospective mate that he can provide for her and for the chicks.  If the female accepts the offering, the male hops onto her back for a little piggy-back ride.  Eggs are incubated for about three weeks, then tiny chicks are born.

I had never seen the full mating sequence play out before this spring.  At Fort De Soto, I saw some frenzied courtship dancing, which involved the male shaking his head repeatedly while holding the fish in his beak.  The female flapped her wings to show her interest.  But the terns at Fort De Soto got distracted and didn’t end up giving me a photo op.  So a few weeks later, in St. Augustine, I was excited to see the same frenzied courtship dance.  I had a feeling I knew what would happen next…

I was surprised at how long this dance went on, at least a minute or more.  (Enough for the photographer to get focused, get bored, shoot some video, and not miss any action!)  I thought the male was going to wear himself out, shaking his head so much!  But he finally decided to hop onto her back and give her the fish…

Fish Exchange
Fish Exchange

I was really excited to capture the transfer of the fish!  He was only on her back for about two seconds.  She made me laugh as she hunkered down on the beach, still holding her fish…

Least Terns in Love
Least Terns in Love

And as fast as it started, it was all over.  The birds started roaming the beach again, then one of them flew off.

In the next post…the concluding chapter of the Least Tern courtship! :)

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