common tern

What a Thousand Terns Sound Like

Falkner Island is about four miles off the shore of Guilford. I had heard there was a big nesting colony of Roseate Terns there. Since I'm having such a hard time differentiating between Roseate, Common, and Forster's while they're all in summer breeding plumage, I thought it would be neat to go look at Tern central station so I could get a sense of direct comparisons between different species.

While four miles of open water is a bit of an intimidating stretch to take on solo, I threw caution into the onshore breeze and headed straight for it. A little less than an hour later, I came up on Falkner and its lighthouse. For the last mile of the approach, Terns were constantly headed out over my head and back with fish in their beaks, presumably fishing to feed their fledglings.

As I got closer and closer, I started to hear a strange roar. The water was choppy and there was a strong wind, so I couldn't make out what it was at first, but as I drew close, I realized it was the sound of an unbelievable number of terns all calling at once.

There are thousands of terns on that island, presumably from at least two, maybe three species, all taking off, landing, calling, chiding, swerving, and bothering each other in close quarters. The sound is amazingly loud and utterly unique.

I was planning on circling the island, rather than landing, and then heading back, since I've heard that you're supposed to avoid making landfall in order to protect the terns' nesting area. However, just as I pulled level with the eastern shore and snapped these shots, I heard a rumble of thunder. I had been watching the radar maps on my phone periodically, but while the big storm fifty miles southwest of me wasn't moving much, a new one began to form a few miles north of the Guilford shore. I had already cut it far to close, so I turned around and paddled an exhausting four mile sprint back to shore. I started seeing lightning strikes several miles north just before I got out of the water, which meant I had miscalculated and was well outside the realm of safety and good judgment, but I did get off the water well before any storm clouds actually came over.

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Eponymous Saltmarsh

Guilford's East River is rapidly becoming a favorite spot for me. I love that it connects to the new East River Preserve in the north part of Guilford, and it's a bit closer to my house and easier to put into than the Hammonasset River, especially now that I've dropped the $20 for a season pass at the Guilford Marina.

I went almost two miles up the river today, which was almost the entire salt marsh section. While I plan to go farther soon, all the way up into the coastal forest, today had some good exploring.

The predominant wildlife is still Willets (left), Ospreys, and Common Terns (above left). I also saw a high-up hawk that I'm fairly sure was a Cooper's, though she took off over the marsh before I could get a good picture.

I also saw a little guy that's turning into an old friend. I've seen lots of small sparrow-like birds flitting across the water and into the grasses, but they're much shyer than the Willets and the other larger birds, so it's hard to be sure exactly what they are.

But, as I've mentioned before on numerous occasions, here's the huge advantage of the kayak: you can take a few shots at a safe distance, and then set yourself up with current, wind, or even momentum to drift a bit closer and closer.

So I was finally able to confirm my hunch and get a few good pictures at the same time. At least some (and probably most) of the sparrow-like birds are the Saltmarsh Sparrows I've come to know well. I don't like to interrupt birds' habits, and I try to stop at the first sign that I'm disturbing one, but this time I got a little too close, and the sparrow looked back over his shoulder as he took off away from me.

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A Short Jaunt on the East River

Today I threw the boat on the car for the first time this year and headed out to do a little exploring on the East River in Guilford, the same East River that runs through the preserve I visited last week. It's apparently possible to take a kayak from the Guilford Marina—to which I now have a $20 season pass—through to the preserve at high tide.

Within seconds of shoving off, I'd found a Willet working the shallows.

A hundred yards later, I found a mixed group of Willets and terns bathing in the shallows. The terns were all Common Terns, and they hopped in and out and splashed around.

I'm having a bit of a rough time ruling out Forster's and Roseate Terns in some pictures, but I'm pretty sure these are all Common.
Within minutes, I had dozens of action pictures of terns in full breeding plumage.

The Willets were bathing too, and out of a few dozen exposures, I captured this neat sequence of three.

As always, I try to set myself upwind of the birds I'm photographing, so I can get closer and closer while causing as little alarm as possible.

As I finished my drift toward the mixed flock, I took one more series of exposures of a male Common Tern preening. Or, potentially, doing tai chi.

Just as he stopped preening and looked worried, I put my paddle back in the water and halted my approach. It's great to get good shots of birds, but it's not worth the expense of disturbing their habits.
Sadly, when I was only about a half mile from the marina, a microcell thunderstorm got itself whipped up to my north, right up the river. I tried to rationalize staying out on the water and going up at least a little father, but when I saw a bolt of lightning in the middle of that downpour, I turned around and hightailed it back to the dock.

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Old Sea Crows

For a long time, I’ve kept my old whitewater kayak in the shed on a sort of just-in-case basis. I don’t have any local friends who paddle, though, and I haven’t actually taken the thing out in quite some time.

So I decided that I was old enough to simply give in and accept that I probably wasn’t going to be whitewater boating anymore. There are certainly plenty of guys much older than I who do whitewater, but I think my days of throwing a boat on the car and driving to Maine to catch a dam release are probably over.

So I wrote up a classified ad for the whitewater boat and bought myself a proper sea kayak. After all, the New England coastline is famous for its beauty, its wildlife, and its seaside culture.

I took it down to the closest put in (Stony Creek), and gave myself a tour of the Thimble Islands.

Typically, I’d try not to disturb resting birds, but I paddled upwind of this Double-crested Cormorant and let the breeze take me closer and closer as I snapped shots. Finally, he gave me the hairy eyeball and took off like some prehistoric monster.

“Cormorant” is a contraction of corvus marinus, Latin for “sea crow.” It’s apt. They’re common, hardy, and have a reputation for greedy eating.

A more difficult subject was this Common Tern, who was fishing off of one of the pricier-looking pieces of property. Taking these photos involved drifting and twisting and mashing the shutter button.

I did get a couple of good ones, including this one, which could be used if these people ever want to put their enormous island house on the market.

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