Royal terns subsist primarily on small fish, four inches or less in length, which they seize by hovering in the air and then diving into the water below. Crabs are another favorite food, as are oysters. Sometimes royal terns will fly close to the sea’s surface, scouting for schools of small fish and then dipping their bills repeatedly into the water to secure their meal.
The large (18 to 21 inches long) and striking royal tern is easily recognized by its size, white body, pale gray wings, crested black cap, and orange bill. The only bird it may be confused with is the even larger Caspian tern, but that bird has a blood-red bill and no visible crest. Royal terns are graceful fliers for their size. Slim, with long, pointed wings and a wingspan that reaches nearly 4 feet, they have delicate, deeply forked tails and are well designed for life on the wing.
I spied on this tern from the east causeway a few days ago.
You can know a Sandwich Tern by the yellow tip on its bill, as though it’s been dipped into a mustard jar. Mustard. Sandwich. Get it?
I’ve been lazy about learning my terns. So I especially tried to see terns last Saturday (a week ago) for birding’s Global Big Day.
I did a couple of eBird checklists, first along a favorite stretch of beach north of the House of Refuge in the morning, then north of Fort Pierce at Avalon State Park in the afternoon.
I contributed two checklists to the amazing world total. Nice to be a part of the big day, but it reminded me I don’t always enjoy a diligent count of carefully identified birds while also trying to get a few good photos.
Royal terns loafing in the bright afternoon at Avalon.
My husband helped during my afternoon excursion. He had the binoculars and I had the camera and the iPhone eBird app. So I would ask him to count and also check and describe the birds up ahead in that flock on the beach to see if they were a mix of different species or they were all the same.
The Royal Terns were active and plentiful on that stretch of the beach. They are large terns with dagger-like orange bills, black legs and a long, forked tail.
Breeding adults have a full black cap that sometimes looks a bit shaggy and unkempt in a strong breeze. Non-breeding adults look like they have the receding hairline of male pattern baldness.
Forked tail of a Royal Tern with a full black cap.
Caspian Terns are the other large terns along Florida beaches. I will try to get a photo and show the differences between the two.
The medium-sized terns around here: Sandwich. Breeding birds also have a shaggy crested black cap. Non-breeding birds have a partial black crown, as shown above.
I feel like I don’t take enough pictures of pelicans relative to how often I see them, which is pretty much daily because I live in Sewall’s Point, a peninsula connected by bridges to the mainland and a barrier island (Hutchinson).
So, here: a bounty of Pelicanus occidentalis.
Also known as a pod, a pouch, a scoop or a squadron of pelicans.
An unmistakable bird of coastal waters. Groups of Brown Pelicans fly low over the waves in single file, flapping and gliding in unison. Their feeding behavior is spectacular, as they plunge headlong into the water in pursuit of fish. The current abundance of this species in the United States represents a success story for conservationists, who succeeded in halting the use of DDT and other persistent pesticides here; as recently as the early 1970s, the Brown Pelican was seriously endangered.
We were stopping by the Fort Pierce Inlet at the north end of Hutchinson Island on a Sunday drive. It was too windy and rough to walk out on the jetty.
So we walked west along the south-side inlet shoreline to see what we could see.
The inlet connects the Indian River Lagoon with the Atlantic Ocean. There is no development at the ocean end of the inlet on either side. The north side is preserved as a state park.
Fishing was the main focus, of humans and birds alike.
Fish were feeding and breaking on the surface all over the place.
Here’s a Double-crested Cormorant, popping up from underwater fishing.
Forages by diving from the air, from as high as 60′ above water, plunging into water headfirst and coming to surface with fish in bill. Tilts bill down to drain water out of pouch, then tosses head back to swallow. Will scavenge at times and will become tame, approaching fishermen for handouts.https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/brown-pelican#
They often look like they’re crash landing face first into salt water.
This guy had a fish on his line and was steadily working it closer and ready to gaff it when a pelican tried to steal it. He waved his gaffe and the pelican backed off, but not before trying to dive underwater and grab it.
View toward the north side jetty. Lots of birds, lots of fish.
And lots of wind.
Sometimes I look at pelicans and wonder how they stay in the air. I mean, their wings are really big, but so are their heads and bills. So big.
But they are master flyers. I like when they soar down low over the water to use what human aviators (like my husband) call “ground effect” to stay effortlessly aloft.
This juvenile Brown Pelican is banded. You can just barely see the band on the near leg, which is tucked up so nice and aerodynamically.
It was a good day for fishing, even for the humans.
I think it’s a Crevalle Jack. This man kept his fish.
I have eaten this kind of jack, very, very fresh, about 20 minutes after my husband caught it from the bridge near our house. He filleted it into chunks, I marinated it for about 10 minutes in lime juice, then cooked it in a cast iron pan with butter and Cajun seasonings. Served over white rice, it was delicious. It has dark red flesh like a tuna.
Snook (a fish I had never heard of until I moved here) are one of the most beloved fish for inshore Florida fishermen. But snook are not always in season (including right now): FWC regulations.
So gaze longingly at the snook and go catch a jack.
Fort Pierce Inlet is a nice destination, easily accessible, and a great place to walk and bird-watch.
Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns in this pic, both in the genus Thalasseus… from the Greek Thalassa, meaning “sea.”
The big Royal Terns are Thalasseus maximus and the smaller Sandwich Terns are Thalasseus sandvicensis.
Thalasseus terns feed by plunge-diving for fish, almost invariably from the sea. They usually dive directly, and not from the “stepped-hover” favoured by, for example, the Arctic tern. The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.
These species have long thin sharp bills, usually a shade of yellow or orange except in the Sandwich tern and Cabot’s tern where the bills are black with yellow tips in most subspecies. All species have a shaggy crest. In winter, the Thalasseus terns’ foreheads become white.
“Sandwich” refers to Sandwich, Kent, England where they were first described and classified by ornithologist John Latham in 1787.
Collective nouns for our fine feathered Thalasseus friends?
As author Chloe Rhodes explains in An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns, unlike proverbs, rhymes or homilies, many of these words endure because they were recorded and published in Books of Courtesy handbooks designed to educate the nobility. ‘They were created and perpetuated as a means of marking out the aristocracy from the less well-bred masses,’ she writes.
Ruddy Turnstones still in breeding plumage. Must be migrating down from their northern nesting areas.
It may be 90 degrees but “bird fall” (and fish fall) has begun.
Be the bird.
A little further down the beach, lots of terns including this Royal.
I’ve been trying to learn our local terns!
This one is a Sandwich Tern.
A bird of marine coasts of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean, the Sandwich Tern is readily identified by its shaggy crest and yellow-tipped black bill.
The tern with the large orange bill is a Royal Tern. Sandwich Tern above and non-breeding Laughing Gull on the right.
Step aside for the lone White Ibis, little Laughing Gull!
A beach full of fat and happy birds, having recently fed on the abundant bait fish.
The terns do the work and the gulls steal their fish, often. Though I have seen the gulls skim a fish right off the surface of the water too.
I think the one smaller tern with the orange bill is a Common Tern. But they look like Forster’s Terns too.
Sandwich Tern and some Laughing Gulls.
Very distinctive bill, in color and length – I think I’ve learned this tern.
Family dynamics of Sandwich Terns?
These women stopped and turned around when they got to the birds. Very polite of them not to make them fly.
Gull practicing its thievery skills.
Two adult non-breeding and one immature Royal Tern in this pic.
Sandwich Terns with the Laughing Gulls here.
So many fish to choose from.
Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns.
Away they go.
And down the beach I find one little Piping Plover! (I checked on What’s This Bird to make sure it wasn’t a Snowy Plover, since they look alike – online – to me.)
Everyone needs a secret beach hideout. Researchers only recently discovered that more than one-third of the Piping Plover population that breeds along the Atlantic coast spends the winter in the Bahamas.
Don’t you want to be the researchers?… hey, we found the Piping Plovers… in the Bahamas!
Royal Tern, Thalasseus maximus, over the Indian River Lagoon near the Ernest Lyons Bridge that runs between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island.
The royal tern typically feeds in small secluded bodies of water such as estuaries, mangroves, and lagoons. Also, but less frequently, the royal terns will hunt for fish in open water, typically within about 100 metres (110 yards) off the shore. The royal tern feeds in salt water and on very rare occasions in fresh water.
The genus name is from Ancient Greek Thalasseus, “fisherman”, from thalassa, “sea”. The specific maximus is Latin for ‘”greatest”.
This one appeared to be scanning for fish but I did not see it dive.
Their pointy orange bills are distinctive and in breeding season, in late spring, they have a complete black cap with some jaunty feathers sticking up on top.
Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the Royal Tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast, less numerous in California. Aside from a few interior localities in Florida, it is almost never found inland except after hurricanes.
They eat fish and crustaceans like crabs and shrimp.
Forages mostly by hovering over water and plunging to catch prey just below surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming water with bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to water’s surface to pick up floating refuse. May steal food from other birds. Sometimes feeds at night.