The big crested terns, those of genus Thalasseus, are well represented on the North Carolina coast. The big orange-billed Royal Terns nest on the south coast in such numbers that it’s hard to look out at the ocean and miss them. But there are Sandwich Terns as well, less common, but still present in bunches. They require a little more work to pick out, particularly if you’re on the beach with your family and you have to squint to make out the slimmer black bill with the superfluous yellow tip. They forage a little closer to the shore than the big Royals, which means that on crowded beaches where the dregs of humanity pile make the near shore look like some sort of chicken noodle and obesity soup, they’re not to be found. But in the quieter coves, they’ll congregate to dive into the shallows for tiny fish.
When the marshes around the tip of the island at Fort Fisher failed to produce much beyond the expected, I found a spot near the civil war fort’s walls to watch the tern show, a couple dozen Sandwich Terns foraging close to the rocks than make up the breakwater by the public beach. It was still early, and there were few people but for some early morning walkers and a surf fisherman. I clambered out the perilous way to the edge of the water, camera and binoculars harnessed around my torso as if I were the world’s least intimidating Rambo impersonator. Once secure, I sat and began taking photos as the birds came by.
The wind blew parallel to the shore, so the birds tacked into it, contorting and diving in equal measure before reaching an imaginary wall where they’d whip around back to the starting point and do it all again. In this way I had a constant stream of terns, many starting to show molt on their foreheads, post breeding birds gathering food for nearly fledged young on an island to the south.
Thy hit the water hard, completely submerging themselves before popping out, oftentimes with a small silver fish in tow. It was then, only a foot or so off the surface of the water, where they’d pause to shake themselves in midair, turning side to side so quickly and violently it was always something of a shock to see it.
North America’s Sandwich Terns are of the subspecies acuflavida, also called ‘Cabot’s’ Tern. They’re different, both genetically and morphologically, than the nominate subspecies, named after the type specimen was salvaged in the vicinity of Sandwich, Kent, former residence of the Earl of Sandwich, he of the portable lunch-meat-and-cheese holder. It’s a overwhelmingly European name, and one that this American birder would be happy to be rid of, even though I find “Cabot’s Tern’ to be obnoxious for a whole host of different reasons. But that’s an argument for ornithologists not concerned with my protestations.
Sandwich or Cabot’s, they’re still something to appreciate on a humid June morning.