Tag Archives: white 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
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.