For the Birds: Columbus Day Bird--The Tern that Told Columbus

Monday, October 10, 2016



Text by Christine Southwick
Photos by Elaine Chuang

After 29 days of non-land views, Columbus’ crew feared they would run out of water and food before they ever found land. Then, much to the joy of Columbus and his crews, Sandwich Terns and other short-distance birds were sighted. The ships adjusted their courses toward the route of the flocks, and islands in the Americas were discovered.


On this side of the continent we don’t have Sandwich Terns, but we do have the largest tern in the world—the Caspian Tern. The Caspian Tern is a distinctive looking bird with a bright red-orange bill, white body and during breeding plumage, a black cap. This tern is now found on all continents except Antarctica, Most Caspian Terns are short-distance migrants, only flying as far as California, but some fly as far as Venezuela.


Caspian Terns are aggressive protectors of their colonies, in part because their youngsters stay-in-training with their parents for several months. Apparently learning to catch fish on the fly is a hard skill to learn. Adults don’t begin breeding until their third year, and may live for twelve years.

Caspian Terns prefer sheltered waters close to land, rather than open oceans. They feed mainly on fish usually close to the surface. They fly with their bills focused downward, hovering, then plunging into the water, often going completely under.

They nest on sand and low gravel islands with little vegetation. Until fairly recent history, they used to nest in small groups that mixed with gulls.


Easily disturbed by humans, many Caspian Terns here in Washington have moved to Rice Island in the Columbia estuary, and have created the largest colony on the West Coast. This colony eats a lot of salmon smolts. This caused the Army Corps of Engineers to propose moving the colony to East Sand Island. This move and proposed disruption of the Caspian Terns caused Seattle Audubon with other conservation groups to bring forth a lawsuit.

I have only seen Caspian Terns in a few places in Washington during April through August, but some of the pictures attached were actually taken at Smith Cove Park, a small park between Magnolia and Queen Anne.

For more information about Caspian Terns in the Columbia River estuary, go to Columbia Bird Research and click on Background.



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