Thursday, August 20, 2009

Caspian Tern

Today, Bernie Master and I made a marathon expedition to Conneaut, Ohio, to try and find the Little Stint that was found there yesterday by Craig Holt. For those of you that may not know the place, Conneaut is as far into the northeastern corner of the state as one can get, blocked in by Lake Erie on the north and Pennsylvania on the east.

We didn't see the stint - it apparently was a one-day wonder as so many of the birds at Conneaut are - but we did see lots of other interesting species. The sand flats in the harbor allow for great, up close study of shorebirds and I got a lot of nice photos and decent video of a variety of things.

The stint would be a state record, and one of very few records - maybe the first from the Great Lakes? - away from the coasts. Would have been great to see it, but misses come with the turf when chasing rarities.

A small mob scans the swales at Conneaut, hoping that the stint magically reappears. It didn't but we had fun watching Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, a Wilson's Phalarope, and other good stuff.

I was pleased to see a number of fine specimens of the King of Terns flying about and loafing on the sands. This jumbo fish-killer was fresh in my mind, as I just received my new issue of Bird Watcher's Digest yesterday, and Caspian Tern is the cover species and feature story.

Also, Caspian Tern is the logo bird for the upcoming Midwest Birding Symposium. If you aren't registered for that, please sign on and join the 700 or so fellow birders who have thus far registered. It'll be a blast and you shouldn't miss it. JUST GO HERE!

Here's a short video of one of the terns lumbering about the Conneaut skies.

I had the privilege of authoring the BWD Caspian Tern article, my fourth and hopefully not last feature for the mag. The others focused on Merlin, American Tree Sparrow, and Whip-poor-will. The tern was the most fun to write about, and it comes in a close second to the Merlin for sheer entertainment value in the field.

The following is an excerpt from the BWD piece:

"Being a fish has its ups and downs. On the pro side, life is a perpetual swim in a spa, the noise and abrasiveness of the terrestrial world muted by a cool watery shield. The ability to glide effortlessly about in a state of semi-weightlessness is another allure. For the most part, all is a bubbly bowl of cherries, softly filtered golden light gently amplifying silvery schools of fish gracefully navigating the waterscape.

The con is death: sudden, horrifying, unexpected doom. And few greater terrors could exist for the scaly crowd than a Caspian tern. Imagine an emerald shiner, placidly drifting about, when POW! A sudden eruption shatters the tranquility of the depths as a bubble-distorted blur of white and red rockets through the water. Before the fish can react, that scarlet torpedo morphs into a ferocious bill attached to a brutish, winged sushi-eater. With a quick snap the minnow is plucked from the water. High in the air, the tern gives an adept flick of its bill, and down the hatch goes the fish headfirst, its world ended in one shocking instant, its fate now to return as guano.

The Caspian tern is the world's largest tern, easily outweighing the other 44 or so species, and also stretching the tape in terms of length and wingspan. In a family of comparative prissiness—with names such as fairy tern, least tern, and whiskered tern—our protagonist is the gargantuan beast, a Goliath among a cast of Davids. It takes nearly 16 least terns—the world's smallest tern—to equal the mass of one Caspian tern.

These black and white beauties even outsize many gulls. The gold standard for gull comparisons across much of North America is the familiar ring-billed gull, abundant from coast to coast. It's a big, can't-miss bird. But the Caspian tern is bigger. Its wingspan is two inches longer, and it outweighs the gull by nearly a half-pound.

Thus, when they take to the wing and commence hunting, Caspians can't be missed. As hefty as gulls, they patrol on big, broad wings with their prominent scarlet-red bill angled down as they scan for prey. You may hear them before you see them, though. As befits the king of the terns, Caspians vent a loud, jarring croaking—RRRRAAAA—that carries considerable distances. If disturbed, they may issue the wonderfully named "gakkering" call (there's a Scrabble winner for you). Researchers Francesca Cuthbert and Linda Wires describe it in their Birds of North America monograph as a "vehement, rasping, ra ra ra-ra-rarau." However you describe it, gakkering often works to scare off intruders in the nest colonies—especially when combined with strafing by an angry cadre of pterodactyl-like giants with four-foot wingspans and blood-red bills the size of small cigars."


Ecesis Factor said...

i briefly worked with a girl was was doing research on these terns in Cali and Oregon. No idea they were in Ohio!

Susanna H. said...

Your "pros and cons" of being a fish are hilarious! I'll have to think of that when I see you now.

But 700+ people at the birding symposium?? With all those scopes and gear - the peninsula may break off and fall in. So I'll be there with my kayak.

Did everyone already hear that fish are dropping from the sky at Marblehead?:

Jack said...

Great to know about your research....Keep going..Thanks for this information..

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Jack said...

I hope u all enjoyed taking the pictures...and the environment is also great I guess!!!!
Thanks for sharing..
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