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Left Tern, Right Tern

It could possibly be argued that the tern family is one of the most ethereal groups of birds, and for good reason. They are genuinely graceful in their mannerisms – surpassed by only a few choice contenders. A few weeks ago I sat at a jetty in the small but picturesque village of Plymouth, Tobago and spent the better part of a sunny, breezy morning making some images of these delicate flyers.

The species I was intent on capturing was equally as intent on staying far away, but in these circumstances you must take what you get. There is a raging debate going on (for years) about ethical bird photography. I’ve known people who demonize the use of artificial light when photographing birds – yet will constantly play the breeding call of a migratory bird to get it to show itself. There is also a huge divide on feeding versus baiting birds. Feeding is putting food out for birds in a situation where the birds do not associate humans with food – for example a hummingbird feeder, or fruits on a table – none of which are geared toward predatory birds. Baiting is where a human will visit a location where a certain bird is known to inhabit, and will put food out to entice the bird into view – for example using mice to lure owls for the perfect photograph.

Anyway, back to my original point. There were a few Sandwich Terns around, none of whom were comfortable getting closer than say, 200m of the shoreline.

sandwich tern-2







Another species that didn’t show well was a breeding plumage Roseate Tern. I never before noticed the reason for its name – as they all seemed black and white to me – but a closer look shows the very slight roseate wash to the bird’s breast. Can you see it? Its bill is likely to become redder, starting at the base, as the season progresses.

roseate tern







There was a school of bait fish (at least it seemed so) in the distance, and many terns were making the turn to dive-bomb their breakfast.

royal tern-3










Royal Terns were the largest terns present on the day, and they were by far the boldest of the lot. No matter the size, they all had basically the same feeding strategy. Hover, dive, extract. After observing hunting terns, I noticed that for them to enter the water, they must be 100% sure of having a good chance of hitting the target. I’ve seen birds abort their dive inches above the ocean’s surface. Fortunately for me, not only did they have a high success rate, but they flew right back to the jetty with their meal.

royal tern






A crowded landing spot meant that some hovering was necessary. Again, good for me.

royal tern-2










Cayenne Terns were also present in (relatively) great numbers. I had photographed this species before, but made zero memorable images. I was determined to have a different outcome this time around. Again, the crowded landing spot worked in my favour.

cayenne tern






As with the Royals, these smaller terns were also fishing and returning with their meals. A few Laughing Gulls in the foreground made this image a little more interesting.

cayenne tern-3










Within half hour of me getting there, I was joined by a fisherman from the village. For the rest of the morning, he sat beside me and we exchanged stories of various parts of our lives. He told me tales of the power of the ocean, I explained to him where these birds come from, and where they’re going. He was most intrigued by the Anhinga that made an appearance – it blew his mind how this bird would fly and swim with equal ease. He also related the story of the fisherman from that same village who disappeared for days at sea – how the entire village came together and crowded the tiny beach in 24 hour vigil. How no-one knew what to do with their lives during the time this man was missing. How when he was eventually found off the coast of Grenada, there was much jubilation. How everyone stayed on the beach, waiting for him to arrive. And how when he finally came into view around the edge of the bay, the village erupted. “Men run down in the sea to meet he, boy.”

What struck me most vividly about my time there, however, was the fact that every single boat anchored in the bay of Plymouth had their engines mounted. Flashback to Trinidad, where fisherfolk must dismantle their engines and carry them home lest they return and realize they have been stolen. 

Hell, even the government can’t patrol the world-renowned Caroni Swamp – a Ramsar Site – for this exact reason. Stolen engines.

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