Terns (2) and a meditation on chicks

I posted a bit about the Arctic Terns before we left Longyearbyen, but along with the Northern Fulmars and our 14 polar bears, they ended up being one of the constants on our voyage. Almost every landing seemed to have nesting terns, or terns with chicks, prompting the outraged chitter chitter chitter squawk and dive-bombings at our heads to keep us away.

Terns are gracefully ferocious.  They nest on the ground, just plunked all over soft boggy territory near water, and they hang out in loose groups.  If you’re looking, you see the terns huddled over their eggs or chicks, but you can’t get within any orbit before they start warning you off.  First it’s swoops and chittering and calling, then hovering right over your head, then diving at your head or unleashing a wet mess of crap on you.  They call in backup troops immediately, so it’s never just one.

We danced with the terns at every landing, but the closest relationship was at Ny Alesund, the last settlement we encountered (really just a research station).  I learned there that if you’re willing to brave being hit on the head by a bird’s bill (which happened to me at least three times — they don’t like red, apparently), you might be able to see this.

Or even this — a tern hiding behind a rock, feeding her chick.  (You can see the second chick in the foreground).

A magnified detail of that shot shows you what she’s feeding the baby — a tiny crustacean. (Click on the image to make it bigger).

The trick is to be very very gentle, and if you’re going to move closer, do it very slowly.  Or they propel themselves at you with a blasting ferocity.  (Note the chick under her left wing).

One of the things I didn’t expect about birding is how much I’ve come to see species as having distinct personalities.  I try not to anthropomorphize it, but it’s impossible not to admire the tenacity of these birds, especially when we noticed how vulnerable chicks of all kinds are in the Arctic.

They’re exposed everywhere, but where food is so scarce, there’s a constant death grapple among the breeding parents and the short season that gets their offspring to self-sufficiency.  Chicks are prey for bigger birds like gulls, as well as Arctic foxes and Polar bears.  We saw a few Eider and King eider ducks with chicks, but a lot more females without any — something that worried Margaret in our group.

At one massive bird colony, we climbed a hill and perched ourselves on grassy tufts opposite the nesting Brünnich’s Guillemots and Black Legged Kittiwakes, parallel brooders.  We ate chocolate and communed in the sun.

But we didn’t manage to actually observe the Brünnich’s Guillemot chick Great Escape — where they suddenly tumble off the nesting cliffs and into the water, where they are much safer than on the ledges of the breeding colonies.  We saw a few chicks on the water, but none actually taking the plunge into the Sea.

As we semi-circumnavigated Spitsbergen, we watched a mythic, timeless pattern slowly play out.  On the warmer, more southerly edge of the barren island, chicks were hatched.  On the colder northeastern side, the terns were still nesting, tenacious and ferocious. Protective, graceful and lovely, it was impossible not to admire each squawk and swoop.


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