All across the Jersey Shore, dainty dancers are on the wing. These elegant ballerinas in crisp black, gray and white dart and pirouette effortlessly. At times they hover almost motionlessly high above the stage, then plummet to the surface and back up in one smooth motion. Who are these dazzling performers taking a turn around the dance floor? Why, Terns of course!
This September, the Cape May birding community was abuzz with the arrival of a rare bird. A Whiskered Tern, which breeds in Eastern Europe and winters in Africa, had somehow found its way across the Atlantic Ocean. This is only the third appearance of this species in North America. The bird split its time between Bunker Pond and the beach for a number of days, giving lots of birders a thrill. Of course, I wanted to see it too.
I arrived just in time for the performance. The Whiskered Tern was only there a short while, and never stopped flying. Unlike terns that dive into the water to feed, Whiskered Terns swoop low along the water’s surface where they pick up bugs. The movement is distinctive.
Lots of people got great images of the Whiskered Tern; I wasn’t one of them. Here’s why it was so hard to photograph – the Tern was very far away and in constant motion. Click on this wide-angle photo and try to find it; the arrow points to it in the inset at top right.
On a sliver of sand in the middle of the bay a cluster of Terns waits to take the stage. There are three different species here. The small birds are Forster’s Terns, the supporting players of the company. The large bird on the left with the orange bill is a Royal Tern. At the other end of the island, from left to right, we have a red-billed Caspian Tern, a Royal just behind him, and two more Caspians.
The fishing here is great, and the Forster’s Terns take full advantage of it.
Photographing them is simply a matter of pointing your camera at them and letting them fly in and out of the frame. And they do.
Delicate little terns swirl, twirl and whirl continuously. In turn they dive straight downward and plunge under the water, to come up in a burst of spray, circle around and dive again. It’s an aerial ballet.