Tuesday, May 19, 2015 Arctic Tern courtship

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 5:09 am, sunset 10:40 pm for a total day length of 17 hours, 30 minutes. Tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 26 seconds longer.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of observing a sleek male ARCTIC TERN courting his equally beautiful true love. While the light of his life watched, he flew buoyantly over the water, searching for fish. Once spotted, he hovered expertly, swooped lower for a better look, and then dove headfirst with a big splash. Sometimes he emerged, shaking off water droplets, without a fish. Occasionally he ate a very small one, but he repeated the hunt until he had a perfect, small fish to deliver.

Upon his approach, the female ratcheted loudly in anticipation. The male hovered overhead, delicately transferring the offering into her waiting red bill. What a gorgeous suitor, with his jet-black crown, red bill, red legs, white body and angel wings! Delivery accepted, he would sit nearby, taking a little time to bask in her adoration.

She, however, was done adoring, and continued to wait expectantly, her petite little red foot tapping impatiently. So off he went to seek yet another treat. After some time, he nailed a 3-spine stickleback. What a prize! He proudly flew back to his darling and offered it, as before. Her happy cries abruptly ceased when she got a look at the formidable spines, pointing her direction.

She snapped her red bill shut while he hovered anxiously overhead, gently bumping her bill with the stickleback, then the back of her head when she turned away, giving him a very clear message. He couldn’t believe that she didn’t want it, and continued to try, futilely hitting her on the back and neck. Finally, he got the message and settled down nearby to deal with this fish himself.

He sat for several minutes with the head down his throat, the 3 dorsal spines sticking out on one side, the 2 orange barb-like ventral spines on the other. The stickleback fought valiantly, flipping its tail up and down, keeping those fierce spines erect.  It took a long time, but finally, the fish must have relaxed due to lack of oxygen. The tern opened his bill even wider and somehow managed to swallow it, a huge bulge showing its progress down the hatch. 

The female, watching the whole show, stretched and might have even yawned. Maybe there was a little prompting cough. He was soon back at work, cruising up and down, finding delicious, small fish without spines for her enjoyment. Courtship is hard work!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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