Eureka Again: Another Evening at the Least Tern Colony

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My thoughts were with cute Least Tern chicks ever since Rich’s Eureka moment and my wonderful half hour with the cute little babies. So a few nights later, we went back to the beach to check on the little birds. Boy do they grow fast! The tiniest chicks from our first visit were already significantly bigger and running quite independently around the beach. It’s a small colony, but in the couple of hours that I spent lying on the sand behind my camera, I spotted babies of all ages.

Least Tern on Eggs
Least Tern on Eggs

Some of the adults were still on eggs. Occasionally they would sit back and you could see the small speckled eggs, like the three under Mom’s brood patch below. She had the challenging job of incubating those eggs even though the little mountain of sand next to her was actually the hole of a crab. Crabs are predators of Least Terns. Ghost crabs feed on both baby terns and eggs. So the Least Tern adults actively chase off all ghost crabs…

Least Tern Defending the Colony
Least Tern Defending the Colony

Nearby chicks seemed unaware of all the commotion. Like this next little guy, who spent all of my first visit cuddled under Mom’s wing. Four days later, he was an intrepid explorer…

Least Tern
Least Tern Chick: “The Beach Explorer”

The most exciting moments were when the parents brought in fish. The babies would hear the calls of the approaching adult and hail their returning parent with open beak and wing-flaps of anticipation. No longer were the parents bringing in the tiny tiny fish that they fed to their newborn chicks. The fish were considerably bigger, and the meal delivery much faster after four days of practice.

Least Tern Feeding Chick
Least Tern Feeding Chick

I re-located the little blond chick that liked to hang out in front of a piece of driftwood. He seemed to have discovered his wings, and spent a good deal of timing practicing his hop-skip-jump. I almost squealed as he skipped straight towards my camera.

Least Tern Flight Practice!
Least Tern Flight Practice!

These little blond chicks are a bit of a novelty to me. In previous years of photographing Least Term babies, I’d always seen them speckled with black spots when they were first hatched. The spot-less guys were just as cute, and hungry!

Least Tern Adult feeding Juvenile
Least Tern Adult feeding Juvenile

It’s hard work to swallow a whole fish. Sometimes the babies would be in the process of swallowing the fish, but seem to run out of energy, so they collapsed on the sand to re-group. A few moments later they’d be up again, struggling to execute that final gulp.

Least Tern and Baby Swallowing Fish
Least Tern and Baby Swallowing Fish

Some older juvenile birds were already flying. They would bring their own fish into the colony, then make a big fuss before eating.

Least Tern Juvenile
Least Tern Juvenile

It’s fun to watch the dynamics of colony nesters. When crabs and other predators are around, the birds band together to protect the colony. But when it comes to caring for the babies, that seems to be a family matter. When an adult accidentally lands next to the wrong babies, the parent quickly appears to chase off the intruder. You’d think the parents would be grateful for the help!

As the sun got lower on the horizon, the light glowed with that beautiful golden glow. The fish-feeding pace increased as the birds prepared for night. In the photo below, both the parent and the baby welcome the parent who was flying in overhead. “We’re here! Down here! Bring fish!”

Least Tern Mom and Chick
Least Tern Mom and Chick

After dinner, the stuffed babies flopped on the sand and took a nap. In a few short weeks, they will be able to fly and take care of themselves. A few weeks later, they will migrate with their parents to South America, where they will spend their first winter. But for now, they rested in the glowing sunset on a beach in Florida. It was a joy to spend the evening with them!

Least Tern Chicks on Beach
Least Tern Chicks on Beach

Want to learn more about nature photography at Black Skimmer Colonies?

Check out my Black Skimmer Colonies 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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