Elegant Tern

Thalasseus elegans

The aptly named Elegant Tern, until recently was not known to breed north of the Gulf of California. Over 90% of all Elegant Terns nest in the Gulf on Isla Raza. The first known nesting of this species in the United States was in 1959 in San Diego Bay.  In 2003, the colony spiked to more than 10,000 birds breeding successfully at the Saltworks (part of the South San Diego Bay NWR). In 2009 nearly double that figure nested there. A lot rests on the movement of bait fish how successful these colonies are.

Unlike most migrating birds, Elegant Terns disburse north as far as British Columbia after nesting. They later will head south for the winter, some travelling as far as Peru and Chile.

When accompanying biologists on their surveys of the Saltworks nesting sites in the San Diego Bay NWR, it is impossible to put into words how the experience overwhelms the senses. Sights, sounds, and yes, even smells are off the chart. Elegant Terns nest in densely packed fields along the dikes that separate the evaporation ponds of the salt manufacturing facility. These dikes are long, and when the team reaches the nest site, thousands of birds rise in loud protest while the team counts the nests and eggs. They don’t leave the area, so it’s like walking through a beehive. As soon as the count is done, the team moves on to the nest site, and the birds settle back onto their treasures.

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