Tag Archives: white tern

Laysan albatross joins birds visiting isles for the holidays

Published December 16, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

This time of year is perfect for reading about a fictional Laysan albatross’s tale in “A Perfect Day for an Albatross” or watching the documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow,” which covers the significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that lives there now. ©2017 Susan Scott

Here on Oahu, the holidays are for the birds — shorebirds and seabirds, that is.

In November, we plover lovers added to our list of thanks the first-ever-seen white (called leucistic) kolea, spotted foraging at Heeia Pier.

Late fall is also when Hawaii’s wedge-tailed shearwater chicks leave their burrows and soar to sea. Some youngsters, disoriented by street and shoreside lights, crash-land. Sea Life Park and other caring individuals embody the giving season by helping downed wedgies with rest, nourishment and redirection.

In addition, Honolulu residents and visitors get to enjoy the city’s own version of a white Christmas in the current flurry of white tern egg-laying and chick-rearing.

Topping off our island’s feathery Christmas cheer are Hawaii’s magnificent Laysan albatrosses, returned to nest again at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.

Before putting on your hiking slippers to visit the albatrosses (parents are now sitting on eggs, and young birds are singing and dancing for mates), I highly recommend first hitting the couch to read a book and watch a movie.

The book is “A Perfect Day for an Albatross,” written and illustrated by Caren Loebel-Fried, an award-winning author and artist from Volcano, and published by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Loebel-Fried’s work of art is a children’s book in the way Pixar films are for children. Kids love the pictures and story, but the art is so stunning, and Malie the albatross’s tale so well told, that it’s a treat for adults too. A bonus in the book for teachers and home- schoolers is an educational guide for grades 1-3.

The partnership between Loebel-Fried and Cornell is a fine example of the lab’s mission of conservation work through combining scientific research, art and citizen science.

Similarly, the recent documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow” artfully combines the military significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that now rules there.

You can watch the movie free on Amazon Prime or rent it for $5 for 48 hours. We rented it at a friend’s house, and she emailed that she watched it two more times before it expired. It’s that good.

Speaking of Midway, I’ll be writing next month’s columns from there because I’m going again as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer to help count albatrosses. The work is strenuous and the cost high (volunteers pay their own airfare and food), but it’s so worth it. See goo.gl/VX4Ph6 for information about volunteering.

Here in the islands, the spirits of Christmas forage, fledge, fish and fly. There’s no place like Hawaii for the holidays.

White terns enjoy growth with the help of humans

Published December 9, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

White terns have taken to urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley. ©2017 Susan Scott

If visions of fairy terns dance in your head this month, they’re not holiday hallucinations. For the second year in a row, Honolulu’s white terns (the official name for what we once called fairy terns or angel terns) are having a banner year.

Fall isn’t usually a busy nesting season for seabirds, but then, Honolulu’s white terns aren’t your usual seabirds. These parents build no nest whatsoever, laying their egg and raising their hatchling on a bare branch.

After the first pair of white terns decided to raise a chick at Koko Head in 1961, others followed until today our island’s south side hosts about 2,300 and counting.

White terns are native throughout the world’s tropic and subtropics, including our Northwestern chain, but Oahu holds the honor of being the only main Hawaiian Island to host a breeding colony of white terns. So far, the birds prefer urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley.

In 2016 and 2017 white terns have had two bursts of egg laying, one in March and another in October. This is a change from the past when, after spring breeding, the birds took time off from chick raising until the next spring.

This is a couple, probably mated for life. ©2017 Susan Scott

No one knows whether this year-round breeding is the new norm here, but it’s encouraging that the charming beauties are so busy. The small fish and squid that white terns eat are apparently plentiful off the city, our towering trees are safe from most predators and people from all walks of life are interested in helping the birds.

The heart and soul of white tern support is Hui Manu-o-Ku, a grass-roots association of tern fans. Among other things, the hui works with researchers, public and private wildlife agencies, and businesses to highlight the tern’s whereabouts.

No one wants to harm these adorable bird families, but in addition, because white terns are protected by federal and state laws, disturbing them can incur a fine. So when eggs and chicks are teetering on bare branches, tree trimmers, landscapers and holiday light stringers want to know.

To call attention to nesting terns, volunteers from Hui Manu-o-Ku and its partners are tying light blue plastic ribbons bearing the organization’s phone number and website around the trunks of trees hosting white tern families.

Volunteers have flagged 85 trees since October 2016 and are enlisting citizen scientists to monitor the terns’ progress.

This is crucial because when the chick fledges, the flag must be removed to keep the system current. People working with trees have been cooperative, helpful and grateful for the heads-up.

How lucky we are to live in a city where real angels decorate our holiday trees. Volunteer to help keep eggs and chicks safe at whiteterns.org or call 379-7555.

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
tern

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.