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.
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.