Roseate Tern: Bird Finder for August 13
by Milan Bull
An endangered species nationwide and in Connecticut, Roseate Terns can now be found with other terns as they begin to stage along our coast through August and September — and then be off, leaving the roosting sandbars suddenly empty.
What It Looks Like: This most graceful of terns is nearly white with a long, pure white, deeply forked tail projecting well beyond the wing tips when the bird is sitting (photo left). Except for more or less red at the base, its bill is black (noticeable in the photo below, in which a Roseate, left, is chasing a Common Tern). The pale rosy breast, for which the bird is named, is seldom visible. The young birds and non-breeding adults that we see now have a pale forehead. The bill is thinner than the more abundant Common Terns. Juveniles have a dark head, and scaly pattern across the back.
Arthur Cleveland Bent, writing in 1921 in his Life Histories of North American Gulls and Terns, describes his first encounter with a freshly killed specimen: “The softest colors of the summer sky were projected on its back and pointed wings, while its breast glowed with the faint blush of some rare seashell.”
Where To Find It: Roseates will often be found mixed in the large groups of migrating terns that are now frequenting our coastline. Sandy Point, West Haven, the sand bars at the Milford Point Coastal Center, and anywhere groups of terns are resting along the shoreline is a good location to scan for these birds.
How To Find It: While carefully looking through resting flocks of Common Terns, look for a tern with a more rounded head, thinner black bill and a tail that projects well beyond its wings. In flight, the Roseate call is a distinctive, two-note “chee-wik,” much different from the Common Tern’s descending “kee-urrr” with which it often associates.
Conservation Status: Federally and State Endangered. Roseate Terns are impacted by human recreation and disturbance in coastal breeding areas that are also being lost to gull colonies. Climate change may also prove to be an important factor, as these birds prefer to feed on shoals of sand lance (Ammodytes), which seem to be shifting north in the Atlantic.
Interesting Note: John James Audubon (1840) writing about the eggs of the Roseate Tern notes that, “Like those of the common tern and other species, they are delicious eating.”
Milan Bull is senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society.
Photo by Hilary Chambers and Kirk Rogers, Carolinabirds.org