Friday, October 21, 2011


Least Tern Courtship
Wiggins Pass, Florida

"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."

Each year in the late spring/early summer, I have the privilege of following flocks of least terns around as they cluster on this area's sand and oyster bars to mate. It's an exciting time of year for any fan of these tiny and comical birds, and I am surely a big fan. As I've mentioned in previous articles, these birds are packed to the pin feathers with personality!

Their courtship is a comedy show on wings. Females group together in tight clutches - or in a "straightness", the official name a group of least terns. They yak it up with loud peeps, keeping a coy eye turned upward to the many males who fly overhead on their way to dive bomb for bait fish.

And the males - well, let's just say it's just not easy to be them. First, they have to be really lucky with bait fish. First rule of dating: no fish, no girls.

Rule number two: you gotta have your swag on. I watched male after male finally spear a shiny little fish, then land on the sandbar near the ladies, announcing their arrival bearing gifts with loud bravado. The ladies, for the most part, ignore them. These poor guys strut up and down the sandbar, offering the wiggling fish stuck on the end of their beak to any female he can find. Rejection runs rampant, but occasionally, one of the ladies will step out of the crowd and curtsy her acceptance of his fish. The photo above is one such exchange. You can almost see the smile on the face of the male, right?!

The rest of it gets a little complicated. Acrobatics are involved, including a bit of walking on backs (see below). As awkward as all the posturing seems, the prospect of being ignored seems just really sad alternative. One poor fellow strutted, then paraded, then walked, and finally wandered around with the same speared fish on his beak for at least 30 minutes. Despite his persistence, and then his pitiful wandering, he couldn't get a lady to show the slightest interest - not even a glance!

No matter what the species, dating just seems like one scary high school prom.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR, the intrepid kayak and a dollop of patience