A “tern” in the right direction…
By: Sabrina Cobb
As Olivia and I had hoped, our least tern colony that has faced some previous challenges (mentioned in blog entry: “An unfortunate “tern” of events… part 2”) is showing signs of successful nesting! Like most colonial nesting birds, least terns will attempt to re-nest under the right circumstances after the colony faces loss. These circumstances usually entail the colony feeling comfortable that the location can provide adequate places for chicks to hide from predators and the food supply is still generous enough to support the them. Luckily this location does provide these as the grass has grown significantly which helps hide the chicks and there are plenty of ponds to forage from. During our surveys it is hard not to get lost in the elegance and skill these birds display while flying over and plunging into pond to catch fish.
On July 1st we estimated 65 total least tern adults at this location! This was the highest count we have had at this location this season so far. With this we concluded there were approximately 32 pairs with 28 nests. From frequent surveys conducted throughout the week we also found ten least tern chicks! Least tern chicks will stay in the nest for 1-2 days where they are protected from the elements by the adults. Once they are about two days old the chicks are completely mobile and running all over! During their downy stage, they are completely covered in very soft, fluffy beige-colored plumage with some light speckling. At this location they camouflage right in with the wildflowers and sand. Least tern chicks will usually lay very flat and still when the colony has alerted that there is a potential predator.
On our most recent survey today, we saw about 50 least tern adults and six downy covered chicks. We also have three feathered chicks! Feathered chicks refer to chicks that have lost most of their downy plumage in exchange for more developed feathers which will be precursors to their flight feathers. Least terns average about 21 days before becoming flight capable; however, they have been seen with their parents for extended amounts of time after fledging.
This colony is wrapping up its breeding activities as we did not see many birds incubating new nests and we are nearing the end of their breeding season.
Another neat bird that we recently saw nesting here was a common nighthawk. They are a medium-sized bird in the nightjar family group and closely related to the Eastern whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s widow. They have very short legs, a tiny bill, and a flat head. Their body is mostly brown with some black and white coloration which helps them blend in with leaf litter. When they are flying you can see a white bar on the wings located where the wings bend. These birds are also ground-nesters in forest clearings, coastal sand dunes, or slightly vegetated fields. Common nighthawks have a very distinct and buzzy “peent” call. When they are actively defending a nest or territory they will also dive at the intruder and let out a “boom” call. These birds are long distance migrants and are usually only here in Alabama during the breeding season. Once breeding season is complete, they will return to their wintering habitat in South America.