I’m not quite sure why I started thinking about Sooty Terns today, but once I did couldn’t get them out of my mind so I may as well harness that and do a post on them. They are, I think, the most numerous species of seabird in the tropical Pacific I haven’t done a post on yet. If not, then certainly the loudest. Their name in Hawaiian is ewa ewa, literally “cacophony”, and another name for the species is wideawake tern, which is how they’ll leave you at first. They manage this noise not only through individual effort but their habit of breeding in dense, large colonies. Such is the racket they make that the one time I entered a colony without earplugs I was actually disorientated after five minutes.

IMG_1500Sooty Tern colonies are busy, noisy, crowded places.

I spent time with the Sooty Terns when I worked on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals, in the north of Hawaii. They utterly dominated the island in numbers, cramming 100,000 or so birds into the thin strip of land either side of the kilometer long runway. Everywhere you went, regardless of what species you were actually studying, you had to content with thousands of these little guys making their displeasure known to you. It’s hard to say if this made them any louder, as my ears can’t distinguish between loud and louder beyond a certain point, but they did certainly jab our feet with their bills; being isolated marine species they lacked the evolutionary knowledge to fly away from us.

angry etrnThis tern isn’t happy with me being close to its tiny patch of island

head ternThey are so tame they even land on you, although never to show displeasure.

followEven when they aren’t angry they are often interested in you.

quiet sooty ternAn adult during a rare quiet and reflective moment.

Sterna_fuscata_flightSooty Terns are superb fliers. After breeding they can spend months at sea without landing before returning to land.

chickA Sooty Tern chick in the gawky phase. The mammoth like thing behind is an albatross chick.

terns and albatrossIts easy to overheat, so the shade of a convenient Black-footed Albatross chick is sought-after.

frigate_sootyPart of the reason for the aggression is that predators are around. A Great Frigatebird snatching a chick.

albino sooty tern

An albino Sooty Tern fledgling

Sterna_fuscataAs well as being remarkable birds, they are also striking and attractive as well.

IMG_0768And they live in beautiful locations.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.