Archive for June 28th, 2012

And now what we’ve all been waiting for (at all of us on Ship Island): tern chicks!

Hooray for tern chicks!

After a little more than three weeks of incubation, the first tern nest we sighted here on Ship became home to the first chick of 2012. This chick, affectionately nicknamed Fabio, was quickly followed by an as-yet-unnamed sibling about a day later. By the time the week was, out, we had chicks hatching out all over the colony

Fabio, on his hatching day

So what’s life like for a tern chick on Ship Island? Well, it begins as a ball of wet feathers and oversized pink feet. Usually, terns lay two or three eggs in a clutch, each about a day apart. As a result, the chicks tend to hatch about a day apart. This small difference in age is often enough for the first-hatched (known as the A Chick) to be noticeably larger than its siblings (called the B and C chicks respectively)

A fluffy A Chick next to a newly hatched B Chick, and an unhatched C Chick

After a few hours in the sun, the chicks dry out and become balls of fluff and feet. In less than a day, they can already make their way a short into the vegetation to hide. Tern nests are very simple and don’t offer a lot of shelter, so it’s important for chicks to get out of the nest as soon as possible. One in the vegetation, their natural camouflage kicks in and they become very difficult to spot.

A chick conceals itself in the vegetation

With a little luck, either Jill or I will spot these adorable little fuzzballs on a walk through the colony. If their legs are large enough (and they usually are) we put a band with a unique number on one leg. These bands allow us to identify the chick so we can track its growth over the weeks. Once the chick fledges, resighting the band will hopefully help us learn about migration and nesting patterns.  Terns will wear these bands all their lives

An adult tern with a band

For the next two and a half weeks, tern chicks spend their lives hiding in the vegetation and waiting for their parents to return with food. They have a lot of growing to do: a newly hatched chick weighs about 15 grams, while an adult tern will weigh as much as 145 grams. Chicks also have to grow a full set of flight feathers to replace their polka-dotted down. Fabio just reached 15 days of age, and his primaries (the long feathers at the tips of the wings) are really starting to grow! In less than a week, he should be flying around with his parents and learning to catch his own food.

Fabio sports his growing feathers

And just because I can, here’s one more picture of a chick:

Until next time,


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