In only one day’s time, you can see the teeny shorebirds gaining strength. As Dad approaches with dinner, the two-day-old Least Tern chicks stretch and flap their wings and open wide their beaks. The noisiest and flappiest is fed first. After depositing a minnow in one beak, off he flies to find dinner for the second sibling.
The polka-dot fluff balls blend perfectly with the surrounding sand and rocks. The brilliant red inside the chicks mouth makes it easier for the adult terns to find them against the monochromatic pebbly beach habitat.
Waiting for dinner.
The tern parents will share feeding their chicks and fledglings non-stop for weeks; the chicks won’t be on their own for another two months.
For the first several days after hatching, Least Tern chicks keep fairly close to Mom in scooped out scrapes and natural divots in the sand, or well-hidden hidden behind rocks and beach vegetation.
Tiny Least Tern Chick camouflaged in the sand, flanked by an adult Least Tern and Piping Plover male passing by (right).
The Rosetti’s Piping Plover fledglings (three!) sharing the nesting site with the Least Tern Rosetti’s family.
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The Rosetti’s Least Terns hatched both eggs and both chicks are doing beautifully!
Least Tern eggs are astonishingly well camouflaged on a pebbly beach, making them nearly impossible to see. It’s easy to understand why the species is threatened, and in some regions, endangered. Least Terns nest on sandy beaches with little vegetation, the same type of beach habitat that people love. Piping Plovers and Least Terns often nest in association with each other. In Massachusetts, the Least Tern is considered a Species of Special Concern.
Mom and Dad Least Terns take turns brooding the eggs. Here they are changing places. Least Terns are monogamous and the Rosetti’s Least Terns are especially good parents.
Least Terns are semi-precocial. Like Piping Plovers, which are fully precocial, Least Terns are mobile after one or two days and can leave the nest.
Unlike Piping Plovers, they cannot feed themselves and will be fed for the next eight weeks by Mom and Dad, a diet consisting mostly of tiny fish.
Tiny minnows, for tiny chicks. Dad does most of the feeding while Mom mostly broods the babies during the first few days. As the nestlings grow, the parents feed the chicks increasingly larger fish.
First day venturing away from the nest, and then returning to Mom for warmth and protection.
Just as the eggs are perfectly camouflaged, so too are the tiny chicks.
Almost as adorable as are Piping Plover chicks are Least Tern chicks. However, they are much, much harder to film and to photograph. Least Terns are shyer of humankind than are Piping Plovers. Anyone who has seen PiPl in action know that they have a high tolerance for people and may come right up to you especially if you are standing perfectly still and are perfectly quiet. Least Terns on the other hand are elusive and skittish. The nestlings quickly take cover behind a rock or clump of beach vegetation when disturbed. The Mom and Dad when both courting and nesting will let you know if you are too close by dive bombing and if you still can’t take a hint, will poop on your head. If either happens, then you know for sure you are way too close and are interfering with the chicks feeding. Back away and observe from a more considerate (considerate-to-the-Terns distance that is). Unfortunately, I recently observed a fellow photographer repeatedly being dive-bombed by a nesting pair of Terns, and that person has a humongously long telephoto lens. She would have gotten perfectly lovely photos from a distance more respectful of the Terns.
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Or is it Sex for Fish? –The Quid Pro Quo Courtship of the Least Tern
While learning more about Piping Plovers on North Shore beaches I happened to be on Winthrop Shore Beach on an afternoon in May when dozens and dozens of Least Terns were pairing up in an elaborate dance of courtship and mating. It was fascinating to observe their courtship feeding and I was so curious to learn more.
That very same afternoon, the “Rosetti’s” Piping Plovers were mating, too. Well known to the area is a pair of Plovers that nest every year directly in front of Café Rosetti’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located on the main boulevard that runs along the beach. The Rosetti’s Plovers are very successful and each year they fledge a clutch of chicks. This year was no exception!
For the past several months I have been documenting through film and photographs the Rosetti’s Plovers and the Rosetti’s Terns, along with a family of PiPl at Revere Beach (more about the Winthrop and Revere Beach’s PiPl in future posts). Both species of birds are on the state and federal threatened species list. Piping Plovers and Least Terns began nesting on the area’s urban beaches as a direct result of the Boston Harbor cleanup, a wonderful, and very surprising to all involved, turn of events. In some regions, both species share the same habitat, as is the case with Winthrop Shore Reservation.
The more we learn about how and why Plovers (and other species of threatened shorebirds) successfully nest on other north of Boston much loved and much utilized beaches, the more we can help our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers successfully nest in years to come.
During the breeding season Least Terns perform courtship displays in the air and on the ground. In dramatic aerial display, a fish-carrying male is chased by the female, sometimes up to four females.
On the ground, the male parades his fish to a prospective mate. With fish dangling from his bill, he bobs his head from side-to side, then opens and closes his wings over the female.
The male mounts the female, still with fish dangling. During copulation he passes the fish to the female.
The funniest thing is, when the female allows the male to mount, she sometimes snatches the fish and flies away before mating has occurred.
No privacy, and lots of piracy!
The male continues to feed the female throughout the incubation period. Both parents incubate the eggs however, the female does about eighty percent of the brooding, while the male provides most of the fish for she and the chicks.
When one adult Least Tern feeds another, whether during courtship when the pair are first becoming established, or during the incubation period, this behavior is called “courtship feeding.”
The courtship feeding display perhaps provide the female tern the assurance that her male mate will be a good provider of fish for both she and the young. Both male and female Least Terns feed the chicks for the first several months after hatching; the better the fisherman, the stronger the chicks. Studies have shown too that courtship feeding provides the female with considerable nutritional benefit. The number of eggs, and weight of the eggs, are determined by the female’s nutritional status and how much food is fed her by her mate.
In Massachusetts, Least Terns primarily eats fish, including Sand Lance, Herring, and Hake. They also eat insects and crustaceans.
“I live in Winthrop. One pair nested on Winthrop Beach about 6 years ago. Now there are 7 nesting pairs. 80% of the beach is now roped off for the plovers. They are rarely successful and keep trying to breed until August. Gloucester needs to determine whether it would like the income from parking or a successful plover population on one of its nicest recreational beaches. I was at Good Harbor the other day and it appears that there is not much of a sandy beach left to use. I realize the birds are endangered and federal law protects them. Gloucester may have to by law pay for 24 hour security like they do in Plymouth.”
Just like the towns of Gloucester and Revere, Winthrop has a beautiful beach (officially named Winthrop Shores Reservation), which within the last decade has become home to nesting shorebirds. Both Revere and Winthrop beaches are managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and both Revere Beach and Winthrop Beach have been on my to do list of places to visit to learn how other communities in Massachusetts manage their nesting shorebird populations.
Least Tern Nesting
Revere and Winthrop Beaches are relatively narrow at high tide, similar to Good Harbor Beach, and both beaches run adjacent to densely populated urban neighborhoods. I have been making good use of my commute from Cambridge and Boston to Gloucester this spring by regularly visiting Revere Beach, and have now added Winthrop Beach. I am so glad that I did! Go to Winthrop Beach if you have never been, or haven’t been in recent years. It is a delight in every way. Visitors sunbathe, picnic, windsurf, paddle board, ride bikes, hold hands, walk their babies, and do all the things visitors do at our Gloucester beaches. You don’t need a sticker to park, and parking is free, if you can get a spot along the main thoroughfare.
Winthrop Beach wasn’t always beautiful. Over the course of the past one hundred years, the devastating effects of pollution and erosion had washed the sand off shore, causing the beach to dip twenty feet below the seawall in some areas. This meant that every time there was a major storm, the waves were not slowed by a gradually inclining beach, but instead slammed into the seawall, flooding streets and homes, and further eroding the foundation of the seawall.
Despite this, in 2008, two pairs of Piping Plovers began nesting at Winthrop Beach. Not only has Winthrop Beach become home to nesting PiPls, at least ninety pairs of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum), a similarly threatened species of shorebirds, have also begun to nest there. The endangered Red Knot (Calidriss canutus), along with a locally nesting pair of American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliates) forage at Winthrop Beach as well.
One half of Winthrop’s resident American Oystercatcher breeding pair.
Winthrop Beach is in the midst of a 31 million dollar restoration project. To renourish the beach, 500,000 cubic yards of sand have been distributed along the one-mile stretch, the seawall has been rebuilt, improvements to beach access and amenities have been made, road repairs to Winthrop Shore Drive completed, sidewalks widened and made handicap accessible, and gorgeous new lighting is being installed.
During the Winthrop Beach major renovation project, care was taken to protect the Piping Plovers and by 2017, the population had quadrupled. Unfortunately, despite the community’s best efforts, 2017 was an unusually bad year. No chicks fledged due to predation by a male American Kestrel. The Kestrel was subsequently captured and moved to the western part of the state.
Massachusetts holds about 30 to 40 percent of the world’s population of Piping Plovers. It is a testament to our clean beaches and water. The Piping Plover’s diet consists of invertebrates and insects, and both require a clean environment.
From my observation during the past several weeks, there are only two roped off areas; one small, similar in size to GHB nesting area #3, and the other, about three times larger. The thing is, the large area is comprised of a restricted dune restoration project and the other part is filled with popples and cobbles, not in the least an ideal location to sunbathe or picnic. There is a wide sandy area in the center of the beach for recreation. Each time that I have been there, including the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, there were very few people on the beach. The only people I had a free moment to speak with, a group of young women that live directly across from the cordoned off area, said they LOVE that their beach is home to the nesting shorebirds. The point is, just as exists at Good Harbor Beach, there is plenty of room to share the shore.
The shorebird nesting area is pebbly and part of a dune restoration project.
The “Five Sisters” breakwater area is well loved by windsurfers and paddle boarders as well as a favored habitat by foraging shorebirds.
Beautiful Beach Pea (Lathyrus maritimous) growing in the restored dune/shorebird nesting area.
Access to Winthrop Beach is restricted by what appears to be a complete lack of public parking. Even with no one on the beach, it has been difficult to find a spot to park on the main drive along the beach, and it is not yet summer time.
On my first visit to Winthrop Beach, the timing could not have been more perfect. Least Terns and Piping Plovers were mating like crazy. It was wonderful to observe both species mating dances and rituals, and both are unique to each other. I’ll post more about the Least Terns courting, essentially “sex in exchange for fish,” as it was so terribly funny to observe.
Least Terns Mating. Males offer a minnow to a prospective female. She will allow him to mount her while simultaneously taking the fish although, sometimes the females take the fish before mating and fly off.
I’ve been back several times since and have seen some courtship displays, but nothing like the free for all of the first visit. There was however a newly hatched Piping Plover family of four tiny little chicks. And one of the pairs of Piping Plovers that I had observed mating is now nesting!
Piping Plovers Mating 1) The male’s high stepping dance, asking the female if she is interested. She says yes by positioning herself with her rear end tilted upward. 2) He dances on her back. 3) The Plovers join cloaca to cloaca 4)Invariably, love making ends with a not too nice sharp nip from the male. The mating pair are now nesting, with at least three eggs in the nest!
Camouflaged! Can you spot the four birds in the above photo?
Just south of Winthrop Shore Reservation is Winthrop’s Yirrell Beach and it is home to several nesting Piping Plover pairs, as well as a pair of nesting American Oystercatchers.
Point Shirley and Crystal Cove with views of the Boston skyline.
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