I have always wanted to photograph the least terns as they nest and raise their young on the beaches in Florida. My good friend Jess knew this so she promised to keep me in the loop when the time was right to do just that. At the end of May, I was visiting our home in Gainesville and got up super early to meet her over in St. Augustine for not only the least terns, but early enough to try out a sunrise as well.
While I wasn’t sure what kind of sunrise we were going to get, being that the skies were threatening and rain was most definitely in the forecast, we figured that we would try anyway. At first, the skies didn’t want to cooperate with the sunrise colors, but before long it got pretty good.
I just love the sand dunes on the beaches in NE Florida … reminds me of my days at UF and the many weekends spent at the beaches of St. Augustine as well.
Such a beautiful beach, complete with a bit of a rocky shoreline in certain places. I could have stayed here longer, but that wasn’t why we were up there. Our quest was to see the terns, so off we went.
As excited as we were to photograph the least terns, they were quite excited seeing us as well. OK, not quite the same thing, but we quickly settled down into our shooting spot and the birds soon calmed down knowing that we were not a threat to them nor their nests.
There was a lot of fish offering to the female going on … and to the male’s dismay, not much taking of the fish. There wouldn’t be much “hanky panky” going on this morning. Perhaps we were a bit early still.
Many of the least tern pairs were sitting on eggs … we could tell because they were fidgeting around when protecting them from the elements – heat especially, but also from the various predators whom might want to take their eggs.
Once in a while, even though tending to the guarding of the eggs, they would get spooked and momentarily fly away. I would always get so nervous when they did.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating behavioral displays that I witnessed was their reaction to the resident ghost crabs in the area. While many of the least terns were fighting amongst each other (over nest sites, a stray male offering a fish to the wrong female, some other mated pair getting too close, or a photographer moving too close or quickly), they sure knew how to unite for the cause when encountered with a potential threat to the entire colony. Enter the ghost crab….
Wings immediately go up in defense by the terns, as they call out incessantly to each other and I imagine scream at the crab as it makes its way. Support comes in as they tag team against the crab, who in turn tries to defend itself as well.
They take turns … on the ground and in the air. LOL
I was surprised at just how close that they get to the crab, who possesses some pinchers that I’m sure could inflict some pain.
Every once in a while, one of the terns would get startled by the crab and would try to quickly retreat by flying away. It’s quite entertaining to watch.
But eventually the crab would retreat or make its way through the mine field of terns – all ready to defend their turf. Funny because the terns are just part-time residents of the beaches, while the crab is residential to the area. 🙂
In the meanwhile, more fish are flown in to the available females, and more rejections follow.
I visited the colony twice … once on this day and again a few weeks later. More images will follow in the next blog post, so stay tuned!
© 2015 Debbie Tubridy / TNWA Photography