Terning the Page
It seems that I have been photographing and writing about Terns a lot lately. Good reason for that is it is now the dead of Summer and here in Southern California there are not of interesting birds to photograph. It is not unexpected seeing as how they are one of the birds that thrive here during those months. I usually encounter the Least Tern, Forster’s Tern, and Caspian, with the occasional Skimmer. The Least and the Forster’s are the most alike, in fact I often have difficulty telling them apart. When I refer to an image as a “Tern” it usually means that I can’t tell whether it is a Least or Forseters. Least terns(California Least Tern) seem to get the most attention though as they were recently on the endangered species list with a population of about 1,200 growing to about 9,000 since the 1970’s. I believe they may still be on the California list. Nationally there are about 43,000 currently. The Caspian tern is a slightly larger bird and is easily identified by a larger coral-red bill.
There are “Tern Islands” where I go. Non accessible islands where the birds are able to nest in privacy. They are protected and thrive. At special times during the Summer months these birds come together and create a feeding frenzy. Except for the skimmers, Terns feed on anchovy, smelt, and surfperch by surveying the water below from about twenty feet above, momentarily freeze in the air (to the wind) and in a downward arching position and the dive into the water at breakneck speed emerging with their catch. Skimmers on the other had, do just that, they skim across the water with bills submerged scooping up their meal.
Terns are really just a smaller gull, about one half to two-thirds the size of a normal adult sea-gull, but they are very quick in flight and often have jerky motions and abrupt turns making them difficult to photograph. Most Tern colors are a combination of black and white with some red, orange , or yellow in the bill. They tend to be shoreline birds but some species can migrate far inland. From a photographic point of view most terns are exceptionally difficult to capture a good exposure because often the head is black and it is tough to get any detail in the eyes with out blowing out the whites in the rest of the body. This is one situation when shooting in strong sunlight can be an advantage. Because they are so fast also you need to photograph hand-held with a fast shutter speed to get sharp images.
So next time when it is the dead of Summer, the light is harsh, and it seems as though there are no birds around to shoot head out to the shore and see if you can spy a Tern or two. You just might like the results.
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