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People along the coast see terns quite often – if they look. Yet many people never see what is surrounding them. At the beach there may be fish, whales, seals, gulls, terns, sandpipers and mollusks as well as sand, water, blankets, and people. Look around!! Gulls are pretty common on most salt water beaches and many fresh water beaches as well. They get a bad rap as “flying rats” and scavengers that might steal a sandwich from you or your child. In most places our rubbish is now collected and buried (big picture comment) and the loss of this easy food supply has been part of the reason for a decline in gulls over the past decade or two – and they seem to be less of a beach nuisance unless people are feeding them. The gulls are the most usual of beach wildlife sightings. But, terns are there – just off shore cruising over the water..
In many cases where there are gulls there are terns. This is a group of slight, delicate, pale birds that fly with ease. They migrate long distances and live twenty or more years. In the western north Atlantic (Gulf of Maine) we have the Common Tern (COTE), Roseate Tern (ROTE) and the Least Tern (LETE) as summertime breeding birds. The Common Terns nest in large colonies usually on predator-free islands. The Least Terns nest in loose, smallish, colonies wherever they want – often on beaches where people and off-road vehicles might find them. Roseate Terns nest only on a couple small islands deep in Nantucket Sound, but after fledging the young they will stage out on the Atlantic beaches before migrating south. August and September can be a time were 20-40,000 terns can be in the Monomoy/Chatham area. Though this sounds great for birders, the ability to get out to the sand bars and islands where the birds are is now very limited due to the erosion of the sandy cliffs and the creation of great shoals that make boat travel near impossible throughout this area. For instance what was once called South Beach, and allowed for access to miles of sand spit, now has been broken and flattened by the sea, no longer providing access or the right conditions for birds. Things change very rapidly along this sandy coast.
In the spring, during migration, we see a few Arctic Terns (ARTE), Black Terns (BLTE), and Caspian Terns (CATE). Scattered throughout the warmer weather we will have very occasional reports of Sandwich Tern (SATE), Royal Tern (ROTE), and Forster’s Tern (FOTE). A Massachusetts birdwatcher with modest dedication will see five or six species of tern; listers and chasers might see seven or eight species.
The following images are of several species but feature the Common Tern colony on Monomoy Island. It is closed to visitation this year through the impact of the COVID-19 troubles – usually there is a US Fish and Wildlife team out there monitoring the colony from a permanent tent-based camp. But not this year. There are about 11,000 pairs of Common Terns out there with some Laughing Gulls and maybe a few Roseate Tern pairs as well. The most common nesting sandpiper type is a large and rather plain (until it flies) bird called Willet (WILL).