May 25, 2014

Rarely heard bird call is now actually common

May is a loud month in the forest. Even on a gray, rainy morning, the dawn chorus is louder than an elementary school playground.

Birds are calling constantly to establish territories and attract mates. Some species have already mated and have nests full of eggs. One friend has already seen four cardinal hatchlings that are screaming at their parents for food. And all avian parents are maniacally alarming whenever nest robbers threaten their nests.

This week I was on the lake and paid attention to the shoreline birds that have their own raucous vocal presence. Overhead I’ve seen eagles, herons and ospreys, and the gulls, geese and ducks continue to squawk and honk for whatever reasons they have.

This week I heard a voice I didn’t recognize, mainly because I haven’t listened well enough in the past.

A variation of gull-like calls came from a group of common terns sitting on a post at the Westport Marina having some heated although not aggressive “conversation.” Four or five individuals seemed to be vying for position on the post but one pair had a particular determination to be on the post together.

Common terns are slender birds with black heads, white bodies, gray wings and bright red beaks. They are called “sea swallows” in Great Britain because of their split tails and the flight pattern that obviously resembles swallows. 

The common terns, like their more famous cousins the Arctic terns, are migratory, returning to Lake Champlain from Central and South America where they wintered. The adult birds we see have flown thousands of miles to return to their nesting colonies.

On Lake Champlain, there are nesting colonies on the islands of the Inland Sea near the Vermont shore. They compete with gulls, cormorants and ducks for nest sites on flat rocks and bare islands with low vegetation.

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