Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2015

Vol. 43, No. 1

Field Notes: Common Tern "Babysits" Black Skimmer Chicks

Shawn P. Carey


Common Tern arrives with fish for Skimmer. (All photographs by Shawn P. Carey).

Plymouth Long Beach is host to one of the largest Common Tern colonies in Massachusetts, as well as nesting Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and Laughing Gulls. It is also the northernmost location for nesting Black Skimmers. I’ve photographed at least one pair of skimmers attempting to nest there in 2009 and 2013, but they were unsuccessful in fledging young.

My first visit to Plymouth Beach for the 2014 summer nesting season was Saturday, June 28, and my expectations were high based on Massbird.org reports of a pair of Black Skimmers that had been observed on the beach for over two weeks. When I arrived in the area of the Common Tern colony, I searched for almost an hour but could not find any signs of skimmers. Had they already given up this early in the season? I would have my answer soon and it was good news. The reason I could not locate the skimmers was because this year they had done something that would increase the odds of successful nesting and hatching—they nested in with the terns, just over the top of a sand dune, which appeared to provide some protection.

I returned on July 26 and quickly found the adult skimmers and hundreds of Common Terns, including many that had fledged, but no sign of skimmer chicks. However, both adults seemed to be spending time on the other side of the sand dune where I had observed them a month earlier, which I took as a good sign.

On August 9, I found two healthy skimmer chicks that looked much older than I expected. My guess is when I was there a week earlier, the parents must have been feeding the chicks up in the dunes where they had nested. However, that was not the only interesting observation about this family of skimmers. If any of the Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, or Common Terns got too close to the skimmer chicks, the adults would quickly run them off. That was true for all other birds except for one adult Common Tern, which, over the three hours I spent watching the skimmers, was rarely more than 10–20 feet from the chicks. I was back on the morning of August 10 and observed the same behavior again. This lone Common Tern stayed near the two skimmer chicks, and when the adult skimmers flew off for long periods of time, the tern was still there as if it were babysitting.

Then something unexpected happened. The Common Tern flew off, returned with a small fish, and landed near one of the skimmer chicks. The tern walked toward the skimmer chick, and the chick moved toward the tern as if it expected to be fed. At the last second the chick moved away from the tern, and the tern ate the fish. But what I had witnessed was shocking. Was this Common Tern or “babysitter” actually feeding these Black Skimmer chicks? I would have to wait another week to get the answer.

On August 17, I returned to Plymouth Beach with Dr. Karl Zuzarte, who photographed the tern feeding one of the skimmer chicks. WOW! Could this really be happening? These Black Skimmers would successfully raise and fledge two young from Plymouth Beach with the help of a Common Tern—the only bird that the adult skimmers tolerated near their young.

On August 26, I spotted all four skimmers looking safe and resting along the shore and right there with them was guess who—the Common Tern. This, by now, was the only Common Tern anywhere on Plymouth Beach!

I returned again on August 30, 31, and September 1, and each day photographed all four skimmers and the “babysitter.” The young skimmers were spending time flying along the shore practicing skimming. On September 1, there was a three-hour period when one of the young skimmers was nowhere to be found. When it returned, the Common Tern flew in and landed right next to the young skimmer with a fish. Luckily, I was able to capture the moment in one of the last photos I took of these skimmers’ amazing journey. I have not returned since September 1; however, I feel pretty good about this family of Black Skimmers and their breeding success in 2014. Maybe it just took a little help from a friend.


Shawn P. Carey is the cofounder of Migration Productions and has been teaching wildlife photography for Mass Audubon for over 15 years. He is a past president and current vice president for Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Mass Audubon, the Goldenrod Foundation, and the Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon.

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