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Least Tern

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Least Terns are coastal birds that feed on small fish by diving into the water or skimming the surface. They are the smallest terns and distinguished during breeding season by a tapered yellow bill with a black tip. Unlike the larger Forster’s Tern, their foreheads are white just under a black cap.

Least Tern
• Length: 9 inches
• Wingspan: 20 inches
• Season: Summer
More about Least Terns.
Where they are, and when.

Their long, narrow wings, with a distinctive black leading edge, enable them fly rapidly in sharp swoops with abrupt turns. They are sometimes solitary, sometimes in large flocks and often in the company of other terns.

Courtship feeding is common, in which the male, carrying a small fish in his bill, flies above the nest in an elaborate aerial dance with his prospective partner. When they land, he offers her the fish.

Least Tern nests are barely a scrape in the sand, typically occupied by two olive color eggs with dark spots. The intrusion of people on the beach is problematic, because when they are frightened from their nests, the Least Tern’s eggs and young become vulnerable to gulls and other birds.

Least Terns are summer visitors to the Gulf Coast and inland rivers and spend their winters in Central and South America.

May 15, 2012

The beach adjacent to the grassy fields on Bolivar Flats turned into a big sandbox for mating Least Terns. The Audubon group roped the area off to give them privacy. Terns cavorted on the hot sand and shuttled back and forth between the dunes and the shallows, hauling small fish in their bills. They were hard to photograph in the air, making sudden and sharp turns and swooping out over the waves.

About Scott Clark

I’m a digital journalist who’s worked as a photographer, reporter, producer and editor. My interest in the natural history of my surroundings reaches back to my early days beachcombing on the Jersey coast, rowing my boat on a quiet lake in Missouri and, more recently, discovering the mountains and backwoods of Montana, where I was born.

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