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Lovely Little Caspian Tern Returns to Oregon Coast

Published 04/27/21 at 8:35 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Lovely Little Caspian Tern Returns to Oregon Coast

(Seaside, Oregon) – The medium-sized bird that makes a big, colorful impression has returned to the Oregon coast. Seaside Aquarium’s Tiffany Boothe exclaimed with glee Monday: “We saw our first Caspian tern today!” (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe)

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It’s migration time for the white and black cuties, who generally reside a ways east of the beaches. The Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia) is fairly common on the shores of the Pacific Northwest but it’s still under some state and federal protections in terms of conservation planning.

“These birds are large as a gull, easily identifiable by their black-capped head and large orange bill and are common in bays and estuaries along the coast during spring and fall migrations,” Boothe said. “Smaller numbers of Caspian terns have even been found inland waters during migration including the mid-Columbia River, Willamette River, and Snake Rivers.”

Caspian terns are found along both coastlines of North America. They nest in sandy, flat areas of islands or waterways like bays, rivers or lakes, usually in colonies. Found from Alaska down through Mexico, their largest colony is right here in Oregon in the lower Columbia River Estuary, according to Boothe.

You can spot them along nearshore rivers, bays and beaches anywhere from Gold Beach, Coos Bay, Florence, Waldport to Warrenton and beyond.

“For the last two decades 12,000- 20,000 Caspian terns have taken season residence on East Sand Island in the Columbia River which represents 50-65% of the Caspian tern breeding populations within the Pacific Flyway corridor,” Boothe said.

Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

When on Oregon coast beaches you’ll often see them catching flight as they prepare to dine. Boothe said when they feed on smaller fish they fly over the water, hover for a bit, and then suddenly plunge downward to snag their prey at the waters surface.

“They have been known to steal fish or eggs from other birds for food,” Boothe said.

Breeding colonies have tended to be farther east, beyond the Cascades. These are found along the Columbia River, lakes in southeast Oregon, and Summer Lake in south central Oregon, among other places.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) said most of the colonies in Oregon have a history of intermittent use.

“Once they reach reproductive maturity at five years, mating pairs incubate one to three pale brown/black spotted eggs for approximately twenty two days,” Boothe said. “Young terns stay with parents up to eight months and as a species are able to live past 20 years.”

Also found on the beaches of the Oregon coast these days are whimbrels, Boothe said.

“They are currently taking a break from their migration to feed on the plethora of mole crabs inhabiting our shores,” she said. “Watch them as they probe the sand with their long thin beaks searching out their next meal.”

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Below: the whimbrel, Seaside Aquarium

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