Tag Archives: tern

White terns are at home in the trees of Honolulu

Published March 13, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Breakfast is served. Courtesy Robert Weber.

Last week I walked into Waikiki with 11 other Oahu residents, zigzagging through tourists, street performers and pamphlet-givers. But we weren’t there to people-watch. We were there to see some of our city’s most charming marine animals: white terns.

Most people don’t think of seabirds as marine animals, but they are among the most remarkable, living entirely off the ocean without living in it.

Some don’t even get wet. In a technique called air dipping, white terns snatch fish and squid from the surface, or in midair when the prey jumps. Although the terns dive to the water, they change direction and speed so fast, they get prey without submerging.

One astonishing white tern trait is the ability to hold fish crosswise in their bills and still catch more. How they open those beaks to grab a fish while keeping hold of several others is a marvel of nature.

White terns usually catch juvenile goatfish, flying fish, flying squid and needlefish but take anything they can carry. Because the birds bring fish to their chicks intact, they have enabled biologists to discover new species. That means a person had to steal a parent tern’s fish intended for its baby.

About this, Spencer Tinker, Waikiki Aquarium director from 1940 to 1972, wrote in his book “Fishes of Hawaii,” “(Gregory’s fish) is known from but a single specimen about two inches in length from Laysan Island, which was brought to the nest of a white tern on May 12, 1923. This is an example of the extreme depravity to which scientists will descend to obtain a new species, namely, taking food from a little bird.”

Regarding humans, some terns have taken the approach of our Pacific golden plovers: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The last estimate of white terns gracing our city’s trees is 2,100.

White-tern citizen scientist Rich Downs led our Waikiki walking tour, sponsored by the Hawaii Audubon Society, to show us some white terns raising chicks in the trees of Waikiki. Some of the chicks are so close to people, we bird lovers worry about vandals killing them (who can forget the Kaena Point albatross massacre?). Some of that worry eased, though, when, seeing us 12 staring up at a chick, a man emerged from a nearby building.

“You’re upsetting the parent, standing there like that,” he scolded.

Honolulu’s white terns have a growing number of friends and protectors. Kapiolani Community College biology professor Wendy Kuntz and student Katie Gipson and others set up a live chick-cam on campus, www.twitch.tv/kccmanuoku, enabling us to watch a white tern family from home. Prepare to fall in love.

For maps and information about how to help the white sprites of Honolulu, see whiteterns.org.

Oahu hui works to protect urban-dwelling white terns

Published September 24, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©2016 Susan Scott

A white tern chick lives on a concrete ledge on Tern Island, a tiny coral island in the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. ©2016 Susan Scott

If you love the white terns that flit around our trees and add joy to our city, join the club. Really. There is a club.

After my recent white tern column, I learned that several like-minded Oahu residents, researchers and conservation group members, both public and private, have formed a white tern fellowship called Hui Manu-o-Ku. The hui’s purpose is to make sure that this Tinker Bell of seabirds — Honolulu’s official bird — is protected, counted (in both numbers and importance) and continues to thrive.

No one knows why white terns have chosen urban Oahu to raise their kids, but our tall trees may be a factor. Because white terns lay their eggs and raise their chicks in the crooks of tree branches, tree trimming, a necessity in all cities, is a vital issue for the birds. The hui’s website has tree trimming tips for arborists and homeowners as well as a map of known “nests,” meaning an egg or chick on a branch. A Citizen Science tab explains how you can help record the city’s growing population, what to do if you find a fallen chick and how to volunteer for other activities.

Tree trimming also has a plus side for the terns. Cut branches form cups, forks and scars that can secure eggs, something that may attract the birds to Honolulu.

White terns can breed year-round but their peak egg-laying time is February through June. The female lays one egg. If it falls, she soon lays another, and another if necessary. The parents take turns sitting on the egg for about five weeks. As soon as the hatchling is fluffy and standing on its big clawed feet — useful for hanging onto a bare branch – the parents are off fishing for juvenile goatfish, flying fish and others.

A parent can hold up to eight fish (I have a photo of this amazing feat) crosswise in its small beak, feeding each one whole to its chick. About seven weeks later, the youngster can fly but, like most kids, sticks around home for the next two months for free meals.

Honolulu is the only city in the world that has white terns raising chicks in bustling built-up areas. To learn how to help keep our feathered friends safe and their population growing, or just to see some fabulous photos, check out Hui Manu-O-Ku’s excellent website, whiteterns.org.

And speaking of safe, our Kaena Point albatrosses will be returning there soon, but the vandals who last winter stole equipment, broke eggs and killed nesting parents have not yet been prosecuted.

You can help our albatrosses by asking the city prosecutor when legal action will begin. Send an email using the form at honoluluprosecutor.org/contact-us/ or call 768-7400.

Silence is a rare commodity in the land of the sooty tern

Published October 24, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

On Lady Musgrave Atoll a black noddy does what it does best. ©2015 Susan Scott

On Lady Musgrave Atoll a black noddy does what it does best. ©2015 Susan Scott

LADY MUSGRAVE ATOLL, Great Barrier Reef >> After a 10-hour sail to this national park, I launched Honu’s dinghy to visit the island inside the circular reef. I expected a tranquil beach walk followed by a peaceful picnic. Instead I could barely hear myself think for the flocks of calling, courting and nesting seabirds.

Loudest were the sooty terns, black-and-white seabirds found throughout the world’s tropics, including Hawaii.

Wildlife workers affectionately call the 13-inch-long birds sooties but because the terns shriek 24/7; their nickname is wideawakes. The distinctive calls are a pleasant nighttime sound at sea when flocks of sooties, attracted to Honu’s mast-top lights, circle the boat. The incessant screeches are so shrill, however, that biologists working in sooty colonies wear earplugs. No one knows whether sooties sleep. A Hawaii biologist told me that she once tried to design a study to answer that question. She failed because the only way you can truly tell whether a person or animal is asleep is to monitor brain waves, and she couldn’t figure a way to attach electric encephalogram leads to the birds’ little heads.

Sooty Turn, AKA Wideawake. At Tern Island but same species. Tern Island was named after the sooties. ©2015 Susan Scott

Sooty Turn, AKA Wideawake. At Tern Island but same species.
Tern Island was named after the sooties. ©2015 Susan Scott

The other major noisemakers in this atoll’s 34-acre island are black noddies. Like sooties, these similar-size black seabirds with white caps are also widespread throughout the world’s tropics. Noddy calls, however, are easier on the ear, being more of a loud twang than a screech. Noddies are the courtliest of seabirds. Their name comes from prospective mates facing one another and nodding. The deep dips look like regal bows. When watching them I imagine one bird saying, “It’s an honor to meet you,” and the other replying, “The pleasure is all mine.”

Sooties are ground nesters but black noddies like trees. As a result, the island’s Pisonia forest is now packed with pinging, curtsying noddies looking for mates and building nests. When I sat on a log to eat lunch, busy noddies hopped around my outstretched feet collecting grass and twigs. The trees, in turn, like black noddies. Some chicks get hopelessly stuck in Pisonia trees’ gooey seeds. After the chick dies, its remains fall to the ground, adding essential nutrients to the soil. Park signs explain this natural process of fertilizing the trees and ask softhearted visitors not to save gummed-up chicks.

Black noddy. ©2015 Susan Scott

Black noddy. ©2015 Susan Scott

Because the Southern Hemisphere’s noddies are just beginning to lay eggs, I didn’t have the temptation. When I sailed here in June, midwinter, the only sounds I heard in the island’s dense forest were fat raindrops plunking onto fallen leaves. What a difference spring makes.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott


When wild animals need a human’s caring touch

Published November 11, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I just returned from three weeks on Tern Island, the main biological research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. During my visit there, we handled wild animals almost daily.

If we weren’t banding young shearwaters or digging up trapped turtle hatchlings, we were rescuing a booby bird or feeding a starving tern. One team of researchers attached tracking gear to endangered monk seals, truly a rare animal-handling privilege.

“It’s amazing how normal this animal handling seems when you live out here,” refuge manager Steve Barclay commented. “Back home, it almost never happens.”

I remembered this comment as we massaged soapy water into the oiled feathers of a masked booby. Even though the oil was mostly on the tail and wing tips, each of us occasionally ran our fingers over the exquisite white feathers on the bird’s head and breast. “It’s OK; we won’t hurt you,” someone would croon. Or, “You’re such a pretty bird….” Stroke, stroke.

This sounded so familiar that I realized that most of us do indeed handle animals at home – our pets. They may not be wild, but they satisfy a need.

What need this is exactly, I do not know. But the compulsion to pet and talk to animals seems universal among humans. It probably goes back to a time when animals kept us warm at night in our caves.

Wherever it comes from, the human urge to caress animals is not always good for the animals, especially protected species where the rule is strictly hands off. But the impulse can be overwhelming.

Once, I was motoring around Hanalei Bay with a friend in a rubber dinghy. A spinner dolphin made our day by cruising along with us. The animal bounded over and rubbed its body against the boat’s bright red tube.

The dolphin appeared to enjoy bumping up against the boat’s rubber side. It was thrilling to see that sleek gray body gliding just inches from my resting hand. “Do you think it would be OK if I touched it?” I asked my friend, knowing the answer. He frowned.

“Well, it came over here,” I argued. “It communicating with us.”

“Don’t,” my friend said.

I couldn’t help myself. Reaching down with just the tips of my fingers, I ever-so-gently touched that sleek back. Of course, the dolphin was gone in an instant.

The lesson was clear. Wild animals can touch you but you can’t touch them back.

Not all my protected species touches have been so foolish. Once while walking on a remote beach, I came across an enormous green sea turtle whose neck was trapped under a tree root. Apparently, this female had laid her eggs high on the beach the night before, then became entangled in the gnarly plant growth when trying to return to the water.

I gripped the edge of her shell and tugged back with all my strength but she struggled forward, digging herself in even deeper. She weighed hundreds of pounds and was entrenched. I would have to go for help.

Before I left, though, I bent to her face, dry and flaking in the sweltering heat. On impulse, I ran to the waterline, filled my canvas hat with sea water and held it to her mouth. Oh, she was thirsty. While she drank, I talked to her and stroked her head and neck.

The subsequent rescue went well. Four of us were able to dig sand and pull her body free.

The turtle was saved but she wasn’t sticking around for any toasts. She hurried down the beach as if pursued by demons, then disappeared under a wave.

I’m back in the city now where it’s not likely I’ll be having any close encounters with dolphins or sea turtles. But I’ll still handle animals. I’ll pet dogs, play with cats and let cage birds sit on my finger. They may be tame but they’re wild about human attention – and they may even stick around for more.