Tern It Up

Long Island has no shortage of beaches. Depending on what coastal activities you prefer, there’s a debate to be had about which beach is best. My own opinions on the matter operate off different metrics than most swimmers and sunbathers. Even though Jones is the typical go-to for most of my beachy needs, my top pick varies largely based on the time of year. If you ask me during the first few weeks of June, my answer comes easily. Right now, Nickerson Beach Park is the place to be! This is the peak season for finding unusual tern species along the shore, and the accessibility and reliability of this site are hard to beat. Studying terns is an engaging, and often quite rewarding, use of your free birding time during early summer. If educating yourself on the subtleties of sternid ID is your goal, Nickerson is a fantastic place to start. I’d go as far as to say it’s the best place in Nassau County to get acquainted with these svelte seabirds.

Things are taking a tern…

There are only a few tern species that actually breed on the southern coast of Long Island. Common Terns are, fittingly, the most common. Large, noisy colonies are often roped off at public beaches, for the protection of the birds and human trespassers alike. This species is very aggressive in defense of its nesting territory, swooping repeatedly at interlopers while crying out with harsh, machine-gun-style calls. They aren’t afraid to make contact with their dagger-sharp beaks if they have to, and they sometime loose bombs of excrement with frightfully precise aim. Despite this defensive intensity, Common Terns share the shore with a handful of other close relatives. Least Terns are also present in smaller numbers on the beach at Nickerson, while Forster’s Terns raise their young in the marshes to the north. Roseate and Gull-billed Terns, most often seen during migration, sometimes linger later into the summer months. Occasional observations of very young juveniles suggest that they have bred close by in the past. Black Skimmers, though abundant throughout the area, are not quite true terns so much as they are quirky cousins. That makes 3 species of tern breeding in the immediate vicinity in most years, with documentation of an additional 2 from time to time. My personal record for the most types of terns observed in a single day at Nickerson, however, is 8 species. What gives?

Over the years, seasoned New York birders have come to realize that certain conditions are irresistible to terns that are migrating through the region. The company of familiar faces and easy access to quality food seem to be the two primary factors. A large, active colony of breeding birds, with individuals flying to and from the sea to forage, can attract the attention of long-distance travelers who then follow the locals back to the beach. Ocean inlets, where bays and saltmarshes empty into the Atlantic, are particularly productive waters for the small bait fish that terns feed on. Birds that aren’t tied up with breeding responsibilities are free to hang around near the best sites, so shorelines close to inlets tend to be very popular with passersby and younger individuals. When these two desirable features combine, they make a particularly potent rarity magnet. Nickerson is home to multiple bustling colonies, and Jones Inlet empties into the sea right next door. The conditions at this site have proven to be fantastic for attracting wayward seabirds with surprising regularity. There are other inlets and tidal flats on Long Island with even better track records, but Nickerson is close to my home and much less dependent on tide. Although the exorbitant entrance fee for the parking lot may give birders pause, this can be avoided by arriving early or late in the day. Morning and evening are the best times to check out the beach anyway.

The tables have terned

Many of Long Island’s best birding records come from the area surrounding Jones Inlet, and Nickerson Beach has earned its name as a solid hotspot due to some truly incredible records. Brown Booby, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pacific Loon, Pomarine Jaeger, and Thick-billed Murre are among the highlights recorded at the park over the years. Due to the favorable conditions for transient terns, many regional or statewide rarities are practically expected at the site each year. Roseates and Gull-bills are often conspicuous here in season, even though they can be tricky to track down elsewhere on the Island. Royal and Black Terns are also recorded essentially annually in some numbers. Caspian Terns have occasionally put in appearances, and even Sandwich Terns have been seen at the beach more than once in the past. The main attraction for most birders, however, is the chance of finding an Arctic Tern loafing on the beach with its commoner cousins.

The Arctic Tern is famous for its globetrotting migration route, which takes a circuitous route back and forth between the polar regions. The current record was set by an individual who covered 59,650 miles before returning to the breeding grounds, the longest migratory distance traveled by any animal. These guys end up seeing more daylight and summertime per year than anyone else on the planet. In addition to that remarkable achievement, Arctic Terns are delightfully dapper and possess graceful aerial prowess even compared to the other talented members of their family. It’s always a pleasure to see one of these word-class wanderers, but they are often difficult to find away from their nesting sites. The prime conditions at the ocean inlets of Long Island sometimes lure in passing Arctics, but locating and identifying them is a challenge all its own.

I’ve been fortunate enough to become quite well acquainted with Arctic Terns over the years. When I worked for the Forest Service in Juneau during the summer of 2013, the birds were a daily fixture of life in the Tongass. I often saw them passing overhead as they ferried fish to their nests in the Mendenhall Glacier forelands. We got to know each other even better when I joined the Project Puffin team in Maine the following year. I spent a fortnight living in their midst on the island of Eastern Egg Rock and several months more narrating boat tours to the colony, which afforded me great opportunities to study them at close range. The proximity helped me to learn more about the structural and plumage differences that separate them from Common Terns, which came in handy once the tours began. Although most guests were focused on seeing the puffins, many birders boarded the ship hoping to add Arctic Tern to their life list. My newly honed familiarity with the species helped me to pick them out of the throngs of Commons at a distance, to the delight of my customers.

One good tern deserves another!

Nowadays, I count myself lucky if I get to see a single Arctic Tern a year. That said, I’m usually able to make that goal a reality. The odds of finding these tricky travelers have only gotten better thanks to wisdom passed down through the fantastic Long Island birding community. Many local birders have spent untold hours scanning and studying tern flocks throughout their lives, and most are happy to pass their knowledge down to other interested observers. Shai Mitra, educator extraordinaire, is the resident king of tern identification. My eye for locating and identifying this species has become infinitely more refined through his advice. The first step, of course, is putting yourself in a place that is likely to attract interesting terns. As I described above, Nickerson fits the bill on all counts.

When attempting to discern if a tern of interest is an Arctic, the main features to look at are the bill, the head, the wings, the legs, and the tail, as well as overall posture and plumage. In all age classes, Arctic Terns tend to have a relatively shorter beak than Commons. Adults have a bright, blood-red bill, richer in coloration than that of a Common, with no dark tip. The crown tends to be more rounded overall, which combines with the shorter bill to make a “cuter” profile. On adult birds, the black cap is more extensive. If you look at the gape, an Arctic will have less white “negative space” between the black and the beak. This field mark is very subtle but surprisingly reliable for older birds. Young terns of both species have white foreheads, but the extent of black on an Arctic is often fuller and more prominent. Although Arctic Terns have more gray body plumage than most Commons, the dark markings on their wings are lighter, with no dark wedge on the upper primaries and a thin trailing edge on the underside of the wingtips. Immature birds may have dusky smudges on the carpal bar at the bend of the wing, but these will usually be paler than the corresponding pattern of a young Common Tern. Due to their more pelagic lifestyle, Arctics have especially short, stubby legs. This smaller leg length is often difficult to judge accurately in the field, but it imparts a slope-backed stance to the bird that can be surprisingly noticeable once you know what to look for. Finally, the forked tail of an adult Arctic Tern is comparatively longer than a Common’s tail, with streamers extending beyond the folded wingtips at rest.

If these features sound tricky to gauge and subject to variation, don’t fret: they are! This species pair can be quite complex, and in less than optimal conditions identification can be a real challenge. Birders live for challenges, though, and an Arctic Tern is a prize worth pursuing. Getting out and searching is a worthwhile venture even when you fail to locate your quarry, as it allows you to continue building up familiarity with the locals. When I arrived at Nickerson on Sunday morning, I found an Arctic Tern literally within seconds of setting up my scope. I was pretty fortunate that it happened to be one of the first birds I checked out, but I would’ve passed it over entirely if not for my experience scouring flocks of expected birds for signs of the unusual. All of those tiny, slight deviations from the Common Tern mold add up to an overall impression of something special. Practice truly makes perfect. If nothing else, a pleasant day at the beach puzzling over these handsome devils is a day well spent. You never know where their adventures may take them when they depart for parts unknown, or when they may find their way back your neck of the woods. Find a good spot, take a closer look, and try to find your own!

Good luck!