Terns (Sterna species): Elegant summertime visitors.
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE TERNS ARE 'SWALLOWS OF THE SEA', alluding to a mastery of flight possessed by the swallows and closely related martins, yet I'm not so sure. The flight of the terns is jerky, flapping even, as if invisible strings hanging from the clouds suspend the birds above the frothing waves beneath, saving them from a dunking. They rise and dip in a motion nothing like that of a swallow, rather in a buoyant, near weightless manner as if gravity has no effect on them. They lack the swallow's speed and grace. No, they can't 'swallows of the sea', not in flight or agility; it is surely their forked tails and migration from southern shores that bestows them the epithet.


  
And there is no doubt about it; the terns are no songsters. In fact, they are utterly tuneless. They are, however, extremely welcome summertime visitors to the Norfolk coastline as they go about a hectic yet brief nesting season, fortifying a graceful presence with near non-stop successions of screeching 'keeyahs', 'kik-kik-kiks', and 'keerees'. Multiply these scratchy utterances several hundred times over, further augmented with the equally discordant cries of nearby gulls, and the sandwich terns, common terns and little terns leave the casual observer in no doubt that a bustling colony is nearby. The common tern is by no means the most numerous or frequent tern to visit Norfolk, where it is annually outnumbered by its two cousins -- breeding pairs of sandwich terns can reach 3, 500 or more and the little tern 800 pairs -- although the common tern is the most widespread, taking up temporary residence on shingle beaches, estuaries and even inland atop specially constructed platforms situated on several of the Norfolk Broads.

The terns belong to the family of birds known as the Laridae, of which the gulls are also part, the gulls divided off into the sub-family Larinae, with the terns fitting into their own sub-family of Sterninae. The whole family bear obvious resemblances in both physical appearance and favouritism for coastal locations, although the terns, almost without exception, can be distinguished by their lighter build and less powerful flight. If there is still confusion between the two, the terns fly with their heads held facing downwards and lack the dynamic glide of a gull. Their light build however, allows them to hover, as a kestrel would over rough grassland, watching for the silver slither of a sand eel or whitebait below the surface of the sea, before plunging gannet-like through the salty brine's shimmering veneer to catch its quarry.
 





To visit a tern colony is to witness noise, and, on first observance, total confusion. White blurs, greyish blurs flashing back and forth as adults feed hungry young or their mates, returning from fishing trips with cargos of fish or eel hanging from their faces. It is not only terns that are present at these colonies, but black-headed gulls as well, and depending upon location, it is possible to find sandwich, common and little terns sharing the same beach. Be mindful of where you tread, as you will soon incur the wrath of scores of vermilion, black or yellow beaks, tips sharp and pointed, bearing down on your intrusion and drawing blood from the top of your head. It is this mob-handed approach that serves the terns well, as nesting in large colonies provides them the strength in numbers to drive away potential threats to their young.

To view the near 5000 breeding pairs of terns in the county requires a bit of legwork. They arrive back in Norfolk during late March and early April after wintering in tropical Africa, setting to the task of finding a suitable nesting site once sufficient numbers have gathered. There is no one location in particular that holds colossal numbers, other than Blakeney Point, where a boat ride is recommended and sure to provide an exhilarating experience; a colony baring all three of Norfolk's tern species takes numbers into the thousands.  For the more adventurous, a hike along the banks of Breydon Water will offer adequate reward for your efforts, with views, albeit distant, of the terns set amidst vast open estuarine vistas. 

Interesting fact…
The terns share a trait of many birds that breed along the coastal shorelines and estuaries of Britain; their nests are merely a scrape in the shingle and sand. Adopting this less-is-more approach, with perfectly camouflaged eggs, dramatically lessens the chances of detection; adversely, a complex structure would stand-out like a warning beacon.

Arriving on the east Norfolk coast during late April and early May, little terns get down to the serious business of courtship prior to breeding. In this instance, an amorous male is offering a potential suitor a gleaming, freshly caught fish in the expectanc
Arriving on the east Norfolk coast during late April and early May, little terns get down to the serious business of courtship prior to breeding. In this instance, an amorous male is offering a potential suitor a gleaming, freshly caught fish in the expectancy of wooing her affections.

Gusting southerly winds force a small flock of little terns to face into the grains of sand being driven along the east coast. The crashing waves makes fishing for sand eels difficult, so sitting out the storm is the best option.
Gusting southerly winds force a small flock of little terns to face into the grains of sand being driven along the east coast. The crashing waves makes fishing for sand eels difficult, so sitting out the storm is the best option.
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