As you may have guessed from my last post, Deb and I visited the Matanzas tern colony in St. Augustine last weekend. It was awesome! I chose the date based on my last visit to the colony, when I saw birds on eggs and lots of hanky-panky going on. The Least Tern incubation period is about three weeks, so we returned in three weeks hoping to see some tiny chicks. Nope! There was lots of courtship still going on, plenty of fish being passed, and the birds were actively defending their colony from their predators the ghost crabs. But no babies yet!
Deb and I parked ourselves on the southern side of the colony and laid down in the sand to watch the birds. A few feet away, an adult Least Tern flew in with a fish. He surprised me when he handed it to a bird in juvenile plumage. In previous years of visiting the colony, I didn’t see very many of the previous year’s juveniles. On this morning, I saw lots of them – and they were almost all being presented with fish.
Some of the fish being brought in were very colorful, kind of green with black stripes. I’m not sure what kind of they are. This bird cooperatively posed with a fish in the hopes that one of my blog readers will leave me a comment and identify the fish! :)
Not far away, another adult male was trying to give a similar fish to a young female. The male flew in with a flourish and dangled the fish in his prospective bride’s face. She hopped around to show her interest. He seemed to be playing hard to get, so she started to grab at the fish more insistently. In one of my photos, it looks like they are playing tug of war…
I had to laugh. She yanked the fish away and he flew off, and the fish fell to the ground! Oops!
Terns were bringing in fish left and right. Sometimes they delivered the fish to their prospective mates. Other birds landed with a fish and walked around as if they were lost. Some tried to give the fish to a bird who was already on eggs. Usually those birds were not exactly receptive. They’d hop up off their eggs and chase off their new suitor!
A pile of sticks in front of us seemed to be a prime nesting location. Several couples were vying for the right to lay their eggs there. Birds flew in and out all morning as they defended the location.
I found that the best technique to photograph these little skirmishes was to pre-focus on the birds on the ground, then fire the shutter when another bird swooped in. I clipped many wings that morning!
This pair of birds was particularly vicious. One bird appeared to pin the other one down for several seconds. Then they both flew off calling.
This wasn’t the only kind of action that Deb and I saw that morning. The terns had several frenzied skirmishes with ghost crabs, their primary predators at the nesting site. The birds throw their wings up tall and make themselves look big to their enemies. Then they fly at the crabs and poke at them to make them leave.
When you see wings up in the air for more than a few seconds, it’s a good sign that a crab is nearby. Often one bird fights the crab by himself, then the skirmish attracts other birds, who join together to defend the colony.
Of course these types of action shots are fun to photograph, but still photographs don’t do the scene justice. So I flipped the camera to video mode to capture the live action!
This was by far one of my better days at the tern colony, second only to my very first visit, when I got to observe an adorable family with two young chicks. Deb and I sat and watched the birds until the sun was high in the sky and the rain was coming in off the coast. As we watched one last fish exchange, we thought about the babies that would soon be born here. They’re going to be so cute!
Deb’s been wanting to visit this colony for several years, and it was fun to share it with her. Maybe next year when she comes back she’ll see a baby. In the meantime, who can resist one last fish?
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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