Forster’s Tern

Yesterday there were three spring returnees – Western kingbird, Forster’s tern and barn swallow. The warmer weather and a few sunbeams have finally lured more summer birds back to Big Valley CA where we live. Last August I did a post on the Western kingbird. Time to introduce the Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri).

Named after the scientist on James Cook’s second expedition, Johann Reinhold Forster, this medium-sized tern is restricted to North America. It winters along the coasts and breeds in inland marshes, preferably those with open water and islands of vegetation. 

Forster’s terns always seem to be flying. Leonard and I rarely see them sitting. Forster’s terns plunge into the water after the small fish, arthropods, tadpoles and small frogs that mainly comprise their diet. They may hover briefly before plunging. Insects, caught in flight, supplement the menu.

Breeding adults are white with a black cap, orange legs and an orange bill with a black tip. The wings are a very pale gray. Tail streamers are prominent on the long, forked tail in the spring, however these streamers are usually broken off by summer. During the winter the black cap fades to a dusky wash on the nape with a black mask about the eye. The non-breeding Forster’s tern has a blackish bill.

These pictures, admittedly not prime photographs but I was anxious to share the Forster’s tern, were taken at Ash Creek Wildlife Area near our ranch (Modoc County CA). Although this tern is usually seen flying, one did briefly land on a little vegetation island next to a ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis). Forster’s terns often build their nests on plant “rafts”. This tern may have been searching for a nest location. 

How wonderful to have the summer birds returning!

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