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.