Lunch trolley menu: Terns

20160430-img_0164 Not to put too fine a point on it but I've noticed that terns travel in mixed assemblages of species. And sometimes they fish together. And preen together. And nest alongside one another. And it seems they're all working toward the same goal.

I wish that we, the human counterpart, could take note from them and realize that we pretty much all want the same basic things. And that there are easier ways to get there. I digress.

Here, look at these Royal Terns.

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Royal Terns inhabit much of the coastline of the western hemisphere. They're also present along the coast of western Africa. They eat small fish, shrimp, squid and crabs.

As I was saying before, they breed in huge colonies right next to Sandwich Terns (and Laughing Gulls).

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Sandwich Terns (sometimes called "Cayenne Terns") inhabit mostly the same range as Royal Terns except for that some populations breed in Europe--how romantic.

They enjoy menhaden, sardines and anchovies almost exclusively. All of the pizza toppings.

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Neither of these birds are globally threatened. Which is something to applaud every single time. Especially because they are seabirds and the ocean is a changing place these days.

We're back to Newfoundland on Sunday with a little bird that Newfies lovingly refer to as a "mope".

Black Skimmers in St. Pete Beach

20160430-IMG_0171 This weekend brings a very cool, unique bird. It's easy to identify, unmistakable actually. Look for the world's most pronounced underbite and three striking hues (black, white, and red-orange). The Black Skimmer.

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As you might have guessed, skimmers are close relatives of gulls and terns. There are only 3 types of skimmers in the world: Black, African, and Indian. The Black Skimmer is the largest of the three measuring 41 - 46 cm in length (16 - 18 inches) with a mass of 232 - 374 grams (0.5 - 0.8 pounds).

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Black Skimmers eat mostly fish: silversides, killifish, minnows, mullet, anchovies, menhaden, and mollies. They also don't mind the odd shrimp. But the way in which they take their prey is far more interesting. Fish are caught exclusively by one method and that is to skim the very top of the water with the lower portion of the bill or mandible, hence the underbite. Once the skimmer feels its bill contact a fish, it snaps its head all the way under its breast forming a backwards "C" with its neck. This allows the skimmer to firmly grasp the prey, which it then swallows during flight.

If you're interested in watching this display, you might have a very short window at dusk. Black Skimmers do much of their foraging in the dark. Some populations use the waning light levels as a cue to go fishing. Because they are doing most of their hunting in the dark, we know that prey location is guided by tactile rather than visual cues. How impressive. Also, small fish like anchovies forage closer to the shoreline at night which lessens the travel requirement (thus, energy expenditure) for skimmers.

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While in St. Pete Beach, I was lucky enough to witness some mating behavior. Black Skimmers do a sort of bowing dance to one another before mating.

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They lay 3-4 eggs in a simple depression in the sand or other substrate and incubate for just under a month. Nestlings are fed by both parents and leave the nest to walk around ~1 week after they hatch. They stick around with mom and dad for about a month and then begin their lives as adults.

They have 4 main predators: gulls, foxes, raccoons, and weasels (especially in breeding colonies).

So where can you find them? Much of South America, Mexico in the winter, and the southern and eastern coasts of the United States. The Black Skimmers pictured in this post were experiencing a hot morning in St. Pete Beach, FL. Their solution to the weather was to play dead. Or that's what it looked like anyway.

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Come back Wednesday for more...you guessed it...birds!

Tufted Puffins on Protection Island

20130620-DSCN0431 It was my second or third day on Protection Island. Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University took me out in his boat with a few other castaways to have a look at the northwest side of the island. There were eagle nests on one stretch and as the cliffs became steeper, westward, crevices and burrows erupted with tiny black flashes of wings. At one time, many more Tufted Puffins lived on the island. Now, there are only a handful of breeding pairs. They nest right next to their cousins, Rhinoceros Auklets. The rhinos, as you know, are my main study species and were my principal cause for inhabiting the island.

This was my very first look at a Tufted Puffin.

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Notice the two feather tufts that run down the back of the head. Those are both the namesake of the puffin and an attractive accoutrement for the breeding season. During winter, the tufts fall off and black feathers fill in the white spots on the face. The puffins also shed the enormous red bill plates and leave the birds looking almost unrecognizable from their summer costumes.

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Tufted Puffins were once a common bird all the way down the California shoreline but are now being seen less and less (even decreasing in numbers as far north as Protection Island, my field site). This is due to a host of introduced predators: rats, foxes, mink, feral cats and dogs, and livestock like goats, sheep and rabbits. Of course, the most direct threat to Tufted Puffins is human disturbance. This is partly why Protection Island went from being a vacation destination to a refuge where tourism and fishing are not allowed on the island at all. The Dungeness crab fishery is very present around the island but vessels must stay at least 200 yards away to respect the buffer zone that the birds utilize, especially during the breeding season.

It is a beautiful and important island worth protecting.

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Come back tomorrow for another post on this double-feature weekend!