The birds are back! Look out towards the water and you may see a medium-sized bird with black, white, and gray feathers flying over the open water looking for something tasty to catch in its red and black-tipped bill.
Common terns have returned to New York Harbor! Flying from far away tropical places where many of the North American population winters along the coast of South America and Caribbean islands. They have come back to our estuary to fish, nest and raise a family.
To many folks, terns look like gulls. Certainly both terns and gulls have webbed feet, forage for fish and have lots of white feathers, but there are also major differences between terns and gulls.
Terns are generally slender and sleeker than gulls, graceful fliers with pointy beaks to catch a fish. On Common terns, the beaks are sharp like harpoons, and long, making up about 75% of the bird’s total head length. Straight, long, pointy beaks indicate an expert fishing bird. This means terns are not interested in stealing your snacks or scraps, but are continuously thinking about a seafood meal.
Terns almost always plunge straight into the water from heights between 20 to 50 feet in the air to catch a small fish, with many terns hovering briefly over shadowy waters below to get a fix on prey before diving in headfirst. Gulls do not dive; they often swoop down and scoop up a fish or anything else that looks appetizing from the surface.
As a child, seeing a tern was a rare sight. Today, Common terns have once again become a regular summer resident around New York Harbor. The birds can be observed raising families on beaches at Sandy Hook in New Jersey and at Breezy Point in Brooklyn, both located at the harbor’s entrance; and at Conaskonck Point in the Borough of Union Beach, NJ, as well as other seaside spots.
Within the most urban coastline in America there is good news for the Common tern. Their habitat is expanding. In recent years Common terns have colonized several decommissioned piers along the water’s edge on Governors Island, specifically on the piers of Buttermilk Channel. In 2013, New York City Audubon counted a total of 181 nests and banded 100 chicks. This is an amazing success story. A resurgence of harbor life.
Yet, there is more work to be done. Common terns are still listed as a threatened species in New York State and a species of special concern in New Jersey. During their breeding season the birds are vulnerable from people, dogs, and boats getting too close to nesting colonies. Coastal development and competition with gulls for prime nesting habitat is also forcing terns to breed in just a handful of places. In addition, terns are being put at risk from global warming, which is transforming coastal areas as sea levels rise.
Let’s work together to continue restoration and preservation efforts for Common terns. One day they may truly become a common bird around the harbor.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest recorded Common Tern was at least 25 years, 1 month old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New York.