Elegant Terns


Elegant Tern in flight

Terns at Bolsa Chica

Elegant Terns galore! In late spring and early summer, one of the birding spectacles in Southern California is the colony of terns at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, Orange County. The pretty estuary (as its name translates from Spanish) has been host to twelve species of terns, with Common, Royal, Caspian, Gull-billed, Black, breeding Black Skimmer, Forster’s, Least, and Elegant, and rarities Sooty, Sandwich, and Bridled.

The Elegant Terns Video

On a Sunday morning in mid-June, I was among several observers treated to more than 15 minutes of the scene in the video below. Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 pairs of Elegant Terns bred at Bolsa Chica this year. All of a sudden, most of them were in the air, resembling European Starlings in a murmuration. Watch how the terns seem to move in unison creating great swirling clouds. This stunning aerial ballet was still going on when I left. Usually flights of terns like these are instigated by a marauding Peregrine Falcon or Northern Harrier. I scanned the sky above the terns but never did find one. That’s a good thing, as no terns were harmed in the making of this video.

In years past, before Bolsa Chica was modified to improve the habitat and open the back area to the ocean, the berm over which the terns are flying had a number of oil rigs and a line of power poles and lines delivering the electricity to power the pumps. Often, you could see Peregrines on multiple poles, waiting to pick off a chick of any of the breeding tern species or a Snowy Plover which also breeds here. But now, the power poles and oil rigs are gone, the sand is clean, and the nearest Peregrine Falcon roosts are almost a mile away. Northern Harriers are not present in June.

The Equipment

The video was taken with a micro 4/3 camera and telephoto zoom lens for the wider portions and digiscoped with the same camera mounted on a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with a TSN-DA10 adapter.

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