Caspian Tern: Bird Finder for September 10
by Frank Gallo, Connecticut Audubon Society’s associate director of the Coastal Center at Milford Point.
Where to find it: Although uncommon, Caspian Terns may be found in Connecticut from mid-April to early November. Two were seen at the Milford Point Coastal Center on Wednesday, September 9. Although they did not linger, there’s always the chance that they will be seen again there or other nearby coastal areas.
If you’re seeing a large, red-billed tern that flies like a gull and has a hoarse voice, you’re probably looking at a Caspian Tern.
Caspian Terns are found on every continent except Antarctica. In North America, they are rather localized breeders on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Great Lakes, and scattered locations along rivers and lakes throughout the interior United States and the prairie provinces of central Canada.
They winter along the southern portion of both coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and on down through Mexico to northern South America.
In fall, adult Caspian Terns often travel with the young-of-the-year. While they often travel overland to reach Connecticut, they are most often encountered along the coast at places such as the Coastal Center at Milford Point, Sandy Point in West Haven, and Hammonasset Beach State Park and nearby sites in Madison.
How to find it: To view the sandbars at Milford Point, come at or near high tide and walk to the observation platform overlooking Long Island Sound. Walking west from the platform for 50 yards to the bend gives a lower but closer look at the bars and the mouth of the river.
At Sandy Point, walk out to either the inner or outer bar and scan the rocks, jetty, and sandbars.
At Hammonasset, park at the Meig’s Point parking lot and either scan Long Island Sound from the overlook, or walk out the moraine trail to scan the rocks and jetty off the end. Also check the coast off the west-end pavilion.
What it looks like: Caspian Terns are our largest terns, and are similar in size to Ring-billed Gulls or Royal Terns, but bulkier. Their wide wings, and slow steady wingbeats, make them appear rather gull-like in flight. They are rather blocky-headed, and have a large black-tipped red bill, a pale gray mantle, black-tipped wings, a white shallowly forked tail, and are white below, with long black legs.
Unlike the similar, more slender, Royal Tern, which shows a white forehead, except briefly during the breeding season, and has just a black trailing edge to the under-wingtip, Caspian Terns retain a black cap in all seasons (although the forehead looks speckled in winter), and show obvious broad black under-wingtips in flight.
What if the bird isn’t there? Check the sandbars, jetties, beaches, and rock outcrops at different tides. Changing tides cause the birds to move from place to place. Caspian Terns are uncommon, so finding one may require multiple visits to appropriate habitat combined with a little bit of luck.
Photos by Dick Daniels, Carolinabirds.org.