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Terns: Subfamily Sterninæ

Six species of Tern occur on the sea-coast of New York and New England; two, the Common Tern and the Black Tern, occasionally appear as casual visitants on large inland waters. The Common Tern breeds locally off the coast of New York and southern New England, and commonly along the coast of Maine. It occurs as a migrant along the whole coast; nearly every tern seen by the casual observer belongs to this species, just as nearly every gull which the ordinary observer sees is a Herring Gull. The Roseate Tern breeds locally from Massachusetts southward; the Arctic Tern from Massachusetts northward. The Least Tern, a very small species, breeds sparingly from Cape Cod southward. The Caspian Tern, a very large species, is a rare migrant in August and September; the Black Tern is an irregular migrant in late summer.

BLACK TERN. Hydrochelidon nigra surinamensis
10.00 in.

A. in early summer.— Head, neck, and under parts sootyblack; feathers under the tail white; back, wings, and tail dark gray; bill black. Ad in late summer and autumn.— Head, neck, and under parts white; top of head and stripe back of eye dusky; back, wings, and tail deep pearl-gray; bill black. Im.— Similar to fall adult, but upper parts browner ; sides washed with dusky.

The Black Tern is a rather irregular migrant along the coast of New York and New England in summer and early autumn. It is rarely seen in its adult black plumage, though it is occasionally seen with under parts spotted with black and white. Even in the autumn plumage it may be readily distinguished from any other tern, except the Least, by its small size. Its tail, too, is less deeply forked than in other adult terns. From the adult Least Tern it may be distinguished by the dark gray of its upper parts and by its black bill. An immature Least Tern has a blackish bill, but is considerably smaller than a Black Tern, and has a brownish tinge on its upper parts.

LEAST TERN. Sterna antillarum
9.00 in.

Ad. in summer.— Forehead white, inclosed by black lines from the eye to the bill; rest of top of head black; back, wings, and tail light pearl-gray; under parts white; bill bright yellow, tip blackish. Ad. in autumn.— Similar, but head grayish-white; bill dull yellowish. Im.— Like fall adult, but back spotted with brownish; bill blackish.

The Least Tern is a summer resident of southern New England and Long Island from May to September; it is local, and nowhere common. It breeds sparingly on the south shore of Martha's Vineyard, and perhaps at Chatham on Cape Cod. Its cry has been described as a “shrill staccato yip, yip, yip(Job). Its size distinguishes it from the Common Tern. The light pearl-gray of its back and wings distinguishes it from the occasional Sooty Tern that might occur on the same coast in August or September. The white border that separates the black cap from the bill is an excellent field-mark, but this must not be confused with the whitish forehead of the immature Common and Roseate Terns.

ROSEATE TERN. Sterna dougalli
15.50 in.

Ad. in summer.— Top of head black; wings and back pale pearl-gray; tail white, the outer feathers much longer than the wings; under parts apparently white (really tinged with rose-pink); bill black, tinged at base with reddish, Ad. in autumn.— Similar, but forehead and forward portion of crown white, streaked with blackish. Im.— Similar to fall adult.

The Roseate Tern is a rare summer resident of the coast of southern New England and New York. On the island of Muskeget, between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, there is a large colony of Roseate Terns; a smaller colony is established on Penikese, and a few other colonies are found along Long Island Sound.

Its times of arrival and departure and its habits are similar to those of the Common Tern, but an adult may easily be distinguished, when seen at close range, by the bill, which is chiefly black, in strong contrast to the pure white under parts, and by the very long and pure white outer tail-feathers. Its cry, too, differs from that of the commoner tern, resembling the syllable cack; this it utters on the breeding-ground as it flies at an intruder, its bill pointing straight at his face, threatening till the last moment to strike him. The young bird cannot be distinguished in life from the young Common Tern; care must be taken, too, not to take a young Common Tern, which has a dark bill, for a Roseate Tern. A combination of a black bill with an entirely black crown and long white tail-feathers makes identification certain.

ARCTIC TERN. Sterna paradiswa
15.50 in.

Ad. in summer.— Top of head black; back and wings pearl-gray; tail white; under parts grayish-white; bill rich red. Ad. in autumn.— Similar, but lower parts white; forehead white; crown white, streaked with black; bill as in summer. Im.— Similar to fall adult, but terminal half of bill blackish.

The Arctic Tern is a common summer resident on the coast of Maine. On Matinicus Rock, Machias Seal Island, and Metinic Green Island, there are large colonies. Its most southern colony is on Muskeget Island, Mass. It migrates southward with the Common Tern, and returns at the same time. At close range it may be distinguished from the Common Tern by its bill, which is uniform deep red. Its tail, too, is a trifle longer. Its notes, according to Mr. Brewster, may be distinguished: “The usual cry corresponds to the tearr of S. hirundo [the Common Tern], but is shriller, ending in a rising inflection, and sounding very like the squeal of a pig."

COMMON TERN. Sterna hirundo
15.00 in.

Ad. in summer.— Top of head black; back and wings pearlgray; tail white; under parts grayish-white; bill red, blackish at tip. Ad. in autumn.— Similar, but forehead and forward part of crown white, mixed with black on the crown; under parts pure bill less red. Im.— Similar to fall adult, but bill brownish.

The Common Tern is a summer resident on the coast of New York and New England, but south of the Maine coast it breeds in only a few colonies; Gull Island, off Long Island, Muskeget Island, and Penikese, near Martha's Vineyard, are the largest of these. On the Maine coast there are many colonies. The Tern arrives in May, and leaves in September. Along those parts of the coast where it does not breed, it is seen as a migrant in May, and more commonly in August and September. Many young birds may be found in late summer congregating on beaches at some distance from the nearest breeding-ground.

Common Tern

Common Tern

The ordinary cries of the Common Tern are a harsh, short kip, and a continual tee, tee, tee, which breaks, when the bird is excited, into a harsh teel-arr; no one who has ever set foot on an island colonized by terns will ever forget the ear-splitting din made by thousands of angry birds uttering this cry. Terns may easily be distinguished from gulls by the long forked tail; in adults, moreover, the whole top of the head is black. When feeding, terns hover at some distance above the water, with bill pointing downward, and seize their prey by a quick downward plunge, which carries them often well under water. Their flight is more buoyant than a gull's; each stroke of the long, narrow wings lifts them easily upward. When not feeding, they gather in large flocks on some exposed sand-spit, but are restless, and often rise, wheel about, and settle again, for no apparent reason. They also light on spindles, spars, and any available perch, and often on the water. When seen near at hand, the red bill with its black tip is conspicuous, and distinguishes the Common Tern from the Arctic and Roseate terns. Young birds and old birds in the fall have whitish foreheads. (See the two preceding species.)

CASPIAN TERN. Sterna caspia
21.00 in.

Ad.— Top of head black; back and wings pearl-gray; tail and under parts white; bill bright red.

When a student has learned readily to distinguish a tern from a gull he may hope to identify the Caspian Tern, which is a rare migrant off the coast in August and September. The black cap, the forked tail, and the red bill mark it as a tern; its size separates it from the other species found on our coast.

[ROYAL TERN]. Thalasseus maximus
18.00 - 20.00 in.

The Royal Tern is missing from the original book for unknwon reasons. It's not too difficult to see them on Long Island and the coast of New England during breeding season nowadays.

[FORSTER'S TERN]. Sterna forsteri
25.00 - 28.00 in.

The Forster's Tern is missing from the original book as its territory is mostly south of the area of this book. Nevertheless it's not uncommon to see them on Long Island.

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