What's Bill Seeing in the Field: Forster's Terns

For more than 30 years, CBF Educator and photographer Bill Portlock has been exploring, documenting, and teaching the wonders of the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams. With his vast, intimate knowledge and experience with the watershed, we thought who better to check in with about what he's seeing in the field right now . . .


Forster's terns appear to be staging for their fall migration in late November. Most will leave the Bay by mid- to late December, coinciding with the arrival of cold weather. These terns are buoyant in flight, especially when diving on small fish at the water's surface. In fall, they can be seen mixed in with several species of gulls diving over hungry rockfish, foraging on schools of menhaden, silversides, or anchovies. 

These medium-sized terns nest in marshes in summer and then winter along the southern U.S. coast. Their nests vary from being an unlined scrape in mud or sand to an elaborate raft of floating vegetation. Typically placed in clumps of marsh vegetation close to open water, they occasionally nest atop muskrat lodges.

Forster's terns' red-orange bill with black tip in summer changes color to black in winter and their summer breeding plumage black caps become comma-shaped black smudges on each side of their head. These are the terns we see most often up tributaries far from the Bay.

—Photographs and Text by Bill Portlock, CBF Senior Educator

What else is Bill seeing in the field these days? Click here to see.





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