Saturday, October 22, 2016

Great Birding Escape

A Least Tern Colony Adventure
Bobby Harrison

     Come summer, the one thing on my mind is to get out of the south.   Now, I love the south, but sometimes the heat and humidity becomes unbearable; so summer is a great time to chase the birds that I love in the more comfortable northern clime.  However, every few years or so before heading north, I head for the gulf coast where the heat and humidity is almost intolerable.  I bear the brunt of such uncomfortable condition for one purpose, and that is to photograph the largest least tern colony in the country.
     Least terns have nested on islands off the coast of Mississippi for hundreds of years.  In the seventies terns began nesting on the manmade beaches at Biloxi and Gulfport.  Today those beaches host a few thousand pairs of least terns and black skimmers from May thru early August.  The tourist, for whom the beaches were built give the birds the right-of-way,­ and enjoy the spectacle.­

The shallow nest with egg of the Least Tern, Sternula antillarum.

     Terns and skimmers begin to congregate on the beaches during May, and by the end of the month most have settled onto their nests.  Nest is perhaps a misnomer, as they are nothing more than shallow depressions in the sand.  Each nest cradles two, three or four speckled eggs that are perfectly camouflaged in the sand.  Finding an unattended nest takes a keen, and discerning eye.

Least Tern Colony along the beach between Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.

     Photographing terns is arduous work in the relentless June heat and humidity, but the rewards are worth the efforts.  Great care must be taken when working in a colony as any disruption could be detrimental to the birds.  Viewing and photography should always be conducted from the colonies edge.
   At the Biloxi and Gulfport colonies sign have been placed along the perimeters warning people to stay out.  Birds however, do not read, and some nest beyond manmade boundaries to the edge of heavily used sidewalks.  Terns that nest close to heavily used areas are more adapted to humans, and are much more tolerable to human presence than those deeper within a colony. 
     This adaptation however, does not protect the passerby.  Once a person crosses the invisible, established boundary of the colony they are instantly bombarded by terns. 

Least Tern, Sternula antillarum, attacking a colony intruder.

     The least tern, though small can be protectively aggressive.  Dive bombing is just one method terns employ to protect their eggs and young; and I do mean bombing, as they swoop toward their targets and defecate on the intruder.  I always wear a wide brim hat when working near a colony; I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.   If dive bombing dosen’t drive the trespasser away, the terns resort to swooping so close to its’ would be victim that it pecks the interlopers head and pulls hair.  Those passing by the colony are certainly hurried along their way with this scenario.
     On the morning I arrived to shoot, twilight was still in progress, but waning rapidly.  As I hurriedly walked along the beach, the sky above the colony was filled with terns buzzing overhead.  The scene looked more like a swarming hive of giant Bees than it did birds.  By the time I reached the edge of the colony I was being bombarded by a horde of swooping terns.  Each bird was attempting to pull hair from my head, but with so little hair on my head, their attempts were in vain.   With the terns buzzing around me I quickly lay down on the sand and covered myself with my beach camofludage.  No sooner had I covered my self, the females returned to their nest and males turned to squabbling with each other, forgetting that I was even there. 

 Least Tern returning with a fish for its mate.

     Previous visits lead me to believe that eggs on the colonies periphery would hatch within a few days of my arrival, and this was crucial to get my target images of adults feeding young.  As I lay under my camofludage, males flew to and from their nest bring fish to the incubating females.   As soon as the females took the offering, the males were off to catch another fish.  As soon as the sun broke the horizon both the birds and I became more active.  The pair of terns closest to me put on a wonderful show.  The male was a superb provider, as he brought more fish than his mate could eat.
Least Tern looking into my camera lens.

     As I lay on the sand, shooting frame after frame the terns paid almost no attention to me.  I say almost because, on occasion, the male would walk right up to my camera lens and look into the lens.  Perhaps he knew a human was there, or perhaps he saw his own reflection.  Whatever the reason, it made for stunning photographs.
     Two hours in to my last, and fourth day of shooting I resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to get that image of an adult feeding a chick that I was seeking.  Though the adults had been incubating eggs during my stay, none of the eggs in the nests I was privy to watch had hatched.  While I had a wonderful time at the colony and had taken hundreds of really nice photos, I was a bit disappointed I had not taken the shot I needed.
     Then, as I was preparing to back off the colony a tern landed right in front of me with a small fish in its beak.  Suddenly, from behind a clump of beach grass a young tern rushed toward the adult to take the fish.  It all happened so fast that I only got one frame, it was the shot I was hoping to get. 

Least Tern feeding chick.

      After four days of shooting everything finally came together, and forty minutes later, exhausted from the heat and humidity, I was back on my feet with a cool bottle of water to quench my thirst.  I had the images I sought, and the little least terns were steadfastly sheltering eggs from the heat of the day, patiencently waiting for them to hatch.
     There are always great lessons to be learned from photographing nature, and having patiences, is the one I am continual taught.  

This article is a combination of two articles first published in Creation Illustrated.  The first "Gulf Coast Tern Colony;" Vol.19, No2; pp12-13 and second "Return to the Terns;"  Vol. 22, No. 4; pp18-19. 


Hotels and Restaurants in the Boloxi and Gulfport, MS

Best Western Oak Manor                 Comfort Suites 
886 Beach Blvd                                9121 US 49 Gulfport, MS 39503
Biloxi, MS 39530                              Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 435-4331                                (228) 206-6446

Quality Inn Biloxi Beach                    Americas Best Value Inn
2414 Beach Blvd                               9375 US 49,
 Biloxi, MS 39531                              Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 388-1000                                 (228) 868-8500
Days Inn Biloxi Beach                       Ramada Gulfport   (228) 370-0981
1768 Beach Blvd                               9415 US 49,
Biloxi, MS 39531                               Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 432-1997                                 (228) 868-8200   

Super 8 Biloxi                                    Holiday Inn Gulfport-Airport
1870 Beach Blvd                               9515 US 49
Biloxi, MS 39531                               Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 385-7919                                 (228) 679-1700

La Quinta Inn Suites Biloxi                Days Inn Gulfport
957 Cedar Lake Rd                           15250 Poole St,
Biloxi, MS 39532                               Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 392-5978                                 (228) 864-5135

Holiday Inn Biloxi                               Fairfield Inn & Suites Gulfport  
1686 Beach Blvd                               15151 Turkey Creek Dr.
Biloxi, MS 39531                                Gulfport, MS  39503
(228) 436-0201                                  (228) 822-9000

Hampton Inn                                      Courtyard Gulfport Beachfront
1138 Beach Blvd                                1600 E Beach Blvd,
Biloxi, MS 39530                                Gulfport, MS 39501
(228) 370-0981                                  (228) 864-4310

Mr Greek                                             El Aguila Mexican Restauran
1670 Pass Rd Ste H                           187 Tegarden Rd
Biloxi, MS 39531                                 Gulfport, MS 39507
(228) 432-7888                                   (228) 284-1742

Shaggy's Biloxi Beach                      Half Shell Oyster House
1763 Beach Boulevard                       2500 13th Street
Biloxi, MS 39531                                Gulfport, MS 39501
(228) 432-5005                                  (228) 867-7001

Yuki's Japanese Restaurant              Panda House
2389 Pass Rd                                    1315 E Pass Rd Gulfport, MS 39507MS
Biloxi, MS 39531                                Gulfport, MS 39507MS
(228) 388-2233                                  (228) 897-7771                              

McElroy's Seafood Restaur.              Taco Sombrero
695 Beach Blvd, Biloxi                      12275 Highway 49
MS 39530                                          Gulfport, MS 39503
(228) 435-5001                                  (228) 832-9644

The Buffet at Beau Rivage                White Cap Seafood Restaurant
875 Beach Blvd                                 560 E Beach Blvd
Biloxi, MS 39530                               Gulfport, MS 39507
(228) 386-7111                                  (228) 604-444

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