Less than three days old, these tiny chicks peek out from the safety and warmth of their mother’s cozy wings.
It was the hatching time of nesting season for a bird species that is dear to me. Least Terns are the smallest tern in North America and are a species at risk in all the locations they are still found. Photographing them and raising awareness about them is something both challenging and rewarding to me as a nature photographer.
As I walked the length of the beach to get to the nesting colony, I quickly grew warm under the rapidly rising sun. I finally approached a small roped-off portion of the beach, set back not far from a thin but steady stream of beachcombers and joggers. Within this protected area were several Least Terns, lying on their nest scrapes in the sand. They seemed to still be incubating eggs, but I wasn’t entirely sure and needed to observe for a while. I settled myself outside the rope, quickly sitting down to be less threatening. I set up my tripod in a low position, and mounted a long telephoto lens to my camera. I began to look through my viewfinder, moving my lens from bird to bird. They were all at least 20 feet away from me. Suddenly, as I observed a tern who was facing away from me, something unusual caught my eye. It took my brain a moment to register what my eyes were seeing. There, under the tern’s wings, were two tiny pairs of eyes peering out at me. I realized that they were so young, they still retained their egg teeth. An egg tooth is the white protuberance on the tip of birds’ beaks (reptiles have them too!) that helps them chip out of the shell; these “teeth” fall off just a couple days after chicks hatch. This meant these tiny undercover observers were only days old! I was awestruck by this moment—the preciousness of these little beings, their safe refuge, and the incredible art of concealment. And I felt extremely fortunate to notice and photograph this fleeting view.
Many people have told me that when they first look at this image, before they can make out the chicks and the back of a tern, they see a “grumpy fish face”! I can see that now too when I look at it.
With threatened status in some of their range, endangered in others, these seabirds have two big challenges to survival. One is having adequate and secure land for nesting. They depend on sandy beaches for nesting—the same beaches people love to recreate on. These birds cannot build nests and nurture their young on the exact same stretch of beach being used by human beachgoers. Unless some area of beach is reserved for the birds, their survival is in jeopardy. The second challenge to their survival is predators of all kinds. Because they nest on the ground, Least Terns and especially their eggs and chicks, are vulnerable to attacks by cats, dogs, and other predators. Grant them some space on our beaches every spring and summer, keep dogs leashed or away altogether, avoid leaving trash and food that attracts gulls, raccoons, foxes, and other predators, and do not feed feral cats near colonies, are all important measures to assist Least Terns. It’s the least we can do to help these beautiful, struggling birds survive.
For me this photo and the surprise it reveals, captures both the wonder of nature, and the protectiveness and love of mothers of all kinds. A mother’s touch does not always involve hands, or even a kiss of sorts. The tender care these newly hatched birds are receiving can be felt, not only by them, but also by all of us seeing this moment in time.