Birds – Marsh Tern

(Gelochelidon nilotica)

Called also: GULL-BILLED TERN, OR SEA SWALLOW Length—13 to 15 inches.

Male and Female—Top and back of head glossy, greenish black; neck all around, and under parts, white; mantle over back and wings, pearl gray; bill and feet black, the former rather short and stout for this family; wings exceedingly long and sharp, each primary surpassing the next fully an inch in length. Tail white, grayish in the centre, and only slightly forked. In winter plumage similar to the above, except that the top of head is white, only a blackish space in front of eyes; grayish about the ears.

Range—” Nearly cosmopolitan; in North America chiefly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, breeding north to southern New Jersey, and wandering casually to Long Island and Massachusetts; in winter both coasts of Mexico and Central America, and south to Brazil.” A. O. U.

Season—Summer visitor. Summer resident south of Delaware.

A very common species, indeed, off the coasts of our south-ern States, this tern, which one can distinguish from its relatives by its heavy black bill and harsh voice, appears at least as far north as Long Island every summer, and occasionally a straggler reaches Maine. While allied very closely to the gulls, that come out of the far north in the winter to visit us, the terns reverse the order and come out of the south in summer.

All manner of beautiful curves and evolutions, sudden darts and dives distinguish the flight of terns, which in grace and airiness of motion no bird can surpass ; but this gull-billed tern is particularly alert and swallow-like, owing to its fondness for insects which must be pursued and caught in mid-air. Fish it by no means despises, only it depends almost never for food upon diving through the water to capture them, as others of its kin do, and almost entirely upon aerial plunges after insects. For this reason it haunts marsh lands and darts and skims above the tall reeds and sedges, also the home of winged betties, moths, spiders, and aquatic insects, dividing its time between the waving plants and the water waves that comb the beach. It is never found far out at sea, as the gulls are, though rarely far from it.

Like the black tern, it is not a beach-nester, but resorts in companies to its hunting grounds in the marshes, and breaks down some of the reeds and grasses to form what by courtesy only could be termed a nest. Three to five bully white eggs, marked with umber brown and blackish, especially around the larger end, are usual; but all terns’ eggs are exceedingly variable. Once Anglica was the specific name of the gull-billed tern; but because our English cousins liked the eggs for food, and used the wings for millinery purposes; the bird is now deplorably rare in England.

“It utters a variety of notes,” says Mr. Chamberlain, “the most common being represented by the syllables kay-wek, kay-wek. One note is described as a laugh, and is said to sound like hay, hay, hay.”