Upstate NY Arctic Tern

Having a nearby birding spot to stop and scan for birds is great. When you read through the listservs, you will probably notice that there are certain birders who seem to always bird the same area, and are often turning up great birds just from frequenting that favorite spot. I have a great spot that I can frequently visit over and over throughout the year, along Onondaga Lake which is just half a mile from my house.

On Friday I had just a couple minutes to stop at the marina before work and was excited to see a couple small birds fly up from the rock jetty where the gulls usually loaf. The first two I saw were young Bonaparte’s Gulls with their distinctive black bands across the wings. Then I got on the terns. Common Terns are, well, for lack of a better word, common on the lake in the summer. They breed not far away on Oneida Lake and are pretty easy to see any day during the summer here. But, this was the first time I had seen any terns in several weeks on the lake so they warranted some more study.

As I was watching, a third tern joined the first two and I soon realized that one of the terns was not like the others. A more buoyant flight style and lack of black markings on the outer primaries got my heart beating as I realized what I was probably looking at. At this point I glanced at my cellphone and realized I was going to be late to work so I fired off some texts and crossed my fingers that some other birders could follow up.

Getting to work at 10am, I started looking through the available field guides and they verified my initial suspicions, ARCTIC TERN! Ok, so I was pretty sure, but it was a great relief when I got some texts 4 hours later that the bird was still around. The icing on the cake was that the Arctic Tern stuck around for much better viewing on Saturday, so I was able to fell much more comfortable about my initial call and study it closer.

first year Arctic Tern - photo by Drew Weber

first year Arctic Tern. Notice the shorter bill and head on the Arctic Tern in the lower left. The image is overexposed so it’s not a good indication of the wing and back color – photo by Drew Weber

I wasn’t quite aware how uncommon an Arctic Tern is in New York away from Long Island. The New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC) compiles records of rare birds in NY and according to their data, there is there are about 40 records of Arctic Tern in NY, with the majority coming from Suffolk County. Most of these records are summering birds.

The following video was taken with an iPhone 5s using the PhoneSkope adapter for my Zeiss Diascope T*FL 85.

There are four accepted records of Arctic Tern in upstate NY, one each in Clinton (5/10/99), Erie (11/12/1989), Monroe (10/5/99), and Tompkins (9/19/2003). These records are updated through 2010 so there may be some more recent that I do not know about, but it appears to be the 5th upstate record pending acceptance by NYSARC.