One bird common to this stretch of coastal Florida has for a long time caught my eye, most of the time raising a smile with its punk rock feather-do. Not at all a rare sight most months of the year, it mingles freely with the more common gulls and is visible on most walks up and down the beach. I have wanted for some time to find out more about this bird, but have been stymied by lack of a name to start with. The other day, during a visit with nearby friends, I was invited to have a look at a bird book laying out on the coffee table. No plan, no thought, the book fell open to a page showing this familiar bird of the wacky crown. “So, that’s what it is!” I exulted, “a royal tern.”
In my case at least, shyness or aloofness in any creature of legs or wings tends to heighten curiosity. Try to creep a little closer and they edge away, or approach within even slight proximity and see them dash or flitter away. The royal tern is perhaps the shyest of birds and won’t stand still at any advance. Without a telephoto lens, good photos are hard to get. In most situations I swear by the camera on my iPhone 4S, but it’s next to useless in capturing a good close up of the royal tern.
The appearance of the royal tern in both sexes is similar. It has a white face, neck, breast and belly, with black legs and a thick bill of bright orange. The back and upper wings are pale gray, the rump and tail white, often with dark edgings. The tail is long and deeply forked tail. Average wingspan in an adult is 51 inches (130 cm). Length is from 18–20 inches (45-50 cm) from beak to tail, and average weight anywhere from 12-16 ounces (340-450 grams). The royal tern’s most interesting feature is its black cap with the spiky crest at rear of its head, or what I call punk rock spikes. This spiky cap is more prominent during breeding season and in winter becomes a little patchy, a sort of ornithological call for Rogaine.
Feeding is sometimes in small secluded bodies of water like estuaries, mangroves and lagoons, but the royal tern will also hunt for fish in open water, typically within a hundred yards of shore. When feeding in open water the bird dives from heights near thirty feet, usually alone or in groups of two or three. When tracking large schools of fish they can be seen feeding in large groups. Most often their prey is small fish such as anchovies, weakfish, and croakers. Fish is the main source of food but they will also eat insects, shrimp, and small crabs swimming near the water’s surface.
The females lay one or two buff or whitish colored eggs with brown blotches in an unlined shallow depression in the sand. The eggs are incubated approximately one month. After the eggs hatch the chicks remain in the ‘nest’ for about a week. About two weeks after hatching the chicks gather into groups called a crèche and are fed primarily by their parents who recognize offspring by voice and looks. When the chicks are a month old they start to fly.
With a dab of new knowledge about these standoffish and spike-headed denizens of the water’s edge, my enjoyment of their presence on walks can only be enhanced. There is the sense of a small opened window that will now widen my appreciation of one more feathered member of this sandy environment.