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Tern, Sooty

Identify and index birds in Southern Africa
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Johan van Rensburg
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Tern, Sooty

Unread post by Johan van Rensburg » Sun Jul 27, 2014 6:54 pm

The Sooty Tern, Onychoprion fuscatus, is the most abundant tern on the planet. So, why am I so excited about finding these graceful black-and-white birds, albeit it being a first for me? Well, they breed mostly at islands in the tropics with the Mozambique Channel holding the closest colony to South Africa at Europa Island. From their breeding grounds they forage during both day and night over distances of 400 km or more, very rarely coming close to land. But after the fledglings take to the air, these terns disperse widely and can remain out at sea in mid-sized flocks for three years and more, either soaring or floating on the water. They reach adulthood at nine years after which they make their annual pilgrimage back to the breeding colonies.

Rarely sooty terns join tern roosts like the one at Saint Lucia estuary, and if you are one of the lucky ones around when they are, you are truly blessed. I first started chasing this tern after a report of it being present at one of the tern roosts at this northern KZN town in October of 2012 and dipped on it for 8 consecutive trips. It kept me fit, for every chase also involved a walk along the beach to mouth of the Imfolozi River, where it sometimes joined tern roosts as well. A quick calculation says I walked well over 100 km chasing this bird!

Whenever we visited Saint Lucia, I had an eye peeled for this beauty. On some walks I just missed out, like it would be seen the day before we arrived, or the day after.

I had last heard of a sooty tern report six weeks before, so, on this occasion I went tern hunting hoping for a slice of luck. I arrived at the estuary very early, as it turned out, too early for any terns to be at the usual roost. As per usual, I slogged across to Mapelane, to find for the first time the Imfolozi River mouth closed off from the sea by a significant sand bar, the topographical change also having eroded the usual sand banks on which the terns roost. It being in the dead of winter, not much else showed. On my return walk, I played around a bit attempting to photograph black saw-wings in flight. Eventually I caught sight of the roost at Saint Lucia. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There must have been 500 birds in a loose roost spread along the estuary bank over a 200-m stretch consisting of Caspian and swift terns, grey-headed gulls and pied avocets. I quickly scanned the roost and just about immediately picked up the pair of sooty terns!

It entertained me for near an hour before eventually flying directly out to sea, not to be seen again… I now understand a bit better why connecting with this tern on terra firma, South Africa, is so rare!

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