Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) is the largest of the world’s terns and one of the most widely distributed. The size of a medium-sized gull, it is a most impressive bird, with its striking silvery-white plumage, black crown, and big red bill. Its vocalizations are no less impressive, a loud rasping call that one could imagine pterodactyls made on their breeding grounds.

Caspian Terns breed on islands in lakes or bays, usually in colonies of hundreds to thousands of birds. The largest Pacific Northwest colony is on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia River, with about 10,000 pairs. This may be the largest colony in the world. The first eggs are laid in mid April, the first hatching about a month later and the first fledging about a month after that. Thousands of birds are still present in late July, but the colony empties shortly after that.

Most pairs lay three eggs, and when they hatch both adults are kept busy bringing in fish from surrounding waters. They fly well above the water, up to 10 meters or more, and dive when they see a fish near the surface, submerging their body completely. If they succeed, they head for the colony. The young have a high-pitched call, like most young birds, and in and around a colony the constant calling back and forth between parents and offspring brings to light the meaning of the word “cacophony.”

Terns are all fish-eaters, and big colonies of Caspians can only thrive where there are a lot of fish in the nearby waters. The Lower Columbia River is such a place, rich in many kinds of fish at the transition from fresh to salt water. Among them are salmon of several species. After their early growth in fresh water, salmonid smolts descend the river to spend some years in salt water before returning to spawn. It has been estimated that 100 million smolts come downriver each year, most of them released from hatcheries.

The terns, and other fish-eating birds nesting in the same area, are there to receive them. It has also been estimated that the tern colony on East Sand Island accounts for predation on about 5 million of these smolts. Although this is only 5% of the estimated smolt run, it is enough to greatly concern wildlife management personnel in both Washington and Oregon.

In fact, concern seems sufficiently great that the terns have been systematically persecuted. Over the past few decades, Caspian Tern colonies have formed at numerous sites along the Washington coast, and at each of them the birds have been hazed until the colony disbanded. Because they have been chased away from islands, they have tried to nest on rooftops and other humanmade structures, but each time they are discovered, they are soon displaced.

Because a few of the colonies on Columbia River islands are thriving, there are enough excess terns that they are still to be seen and heard flying over all of our coastal waters, but many of them fail to breed because they are not allowed to. Salmonid fishes are of great importance to the Pacific Northwest economy, and Caspian Terns are not; the equation does not favor the terns.

POSTSCRIPT (added 23 June 2011)

The largest PNW tern colony, on Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia, has been severely disrupted by predators, especially Bald Eagles, and will probably fail this year. Fortunately, the terns are long-lived and will presumably breed next year, but the eagles are proving to be real villains in this case, disrupting colonies of terns and other seabirds severely enough that they pose a long-term threat to the populations of these birds. Anthropogenic changes may have made the situation worse, with a decline in other eagle prey and a reduction of the seabird colonies to few sites.

Dennis Paulson


mgmeredith said...

My husband and I spotted a single young Caspian Tern fishing very diligently but unsuccessfully at the mouth of the Cedar River on Lake Washington. It was fun watching him fish but then he just disappeared. This was on 07/10/2015.

Green Tara said...

Cho những chị em đang tìm hiểu về thắc mắc phun thêu lông mày ở hà nội giá rẻ uy tín. Thực hư trong câu chuyện làm đẹp phun lông mày ngang ở đâu đẹp Những bí mật ít người biết về thêu chân mày ngang kiểu hàn quốc hay những điều chị em phụ nữ thắc mắc về phun thêu ở đâu giá rẻ Cho những ai đang có dự định sử dụng dịch vụ làm đẹp thêu lông mày ở đâu đẹp và tự nhiênphun môi ở đâu đẹp tại hà nội. Có thể bạn chưa biết phun môi ở đâu đẹp tại hà nội hiện đang là dịch vụ hot nhất hiện nay, được nhiều chị em quan tâm.

Anonymous said...

They are in the West Seattle area as of July a flock of 5 or 6.Saw them in the morning and heard them at sundown in the greenbelt around South Seattle Community College.Might be nesting.

Unknown said...

Yes a colony seems established now in the SSCC area

PugetRidge said...

This colony has tripled in size since they hit our area (Duwamish Greenbelt, north of SSCC) in 2016,
Their squawking makes a wonderful alarm clock - if I want to sleep-in past 5:15am, I go to sleep with earplugs : )