Each summer in St. Augustine I look forward to the return of the Least Terns and my time with them on the beach. From the second I hear that unmistakable call, I look straight up in the sky to see their white undersides, pointed wings, and little beaks.
For the last three summers (since I was 9) I have been an Audubon bird steward in St. Johns County. I was excited to return to my post this month for my fourth season, but a broken toe and a cast means I will have to wait.
One of my jobs as a steward is to make sure the Least Terns and their young are not being harmed by humans or their pets. I help keep people and their dogs from entering the protected nesting areas. I also try to make sure that everyone who walks by the colony learns about Least Terns so they will be more eager to help protect them. I love when people see Least Tern chicks for the first time and are enthusiastic. My favorite part of stewarding, though, is simply watching the birds and observing their behavior.
When the Least Terns return to St. Augustine from the Caribbean or South America each spring, they look for a great spot to find a partner and raise their young. Least Terns nest in colonies and seek protected habitat. They like open areas where other Least Terns can join them.
One of my favorite things to watch is the male Least Tern doing his funny little dance and offering the female a fish. If they pair off, they go find a good spot together to make their nest, called a scrape. It’s a shallow scratched-out spot in the sand and a perfect spot to lay their 1 to 3 eggs.
I also love to watch them diving for fish. They plunge headfirst, with their wings folded in, and hit the water very fast. If they are successful, they come out of the water shaking their feathers with pride, showing off their catch of the day.
The adults’ breeding plumage (black, white, and gray feathers) is stunning. Their little yellow legs and beaks make the birds even cuter. The babies, with their brown and gray speckles, know how to keep cool by using their parent as an umbrella. Just like all baby animals, when they see their parent return with food, they get super excited and a little bit noisy. I am always happy when I spot a chick running around on its tiny legs.
Being able to spend time on the beach with these amazing birds while educating others and helping protect the species makes for a great day. It’s hard to imagine going to beaches and not seeing Least Terns and shorebirds. If we want to preserve these birds, we have to take steps to protect them. I can’t wait to get back on the beach and help the nesting birds this season.