Fairy Terns… and others

I was always a lover of soft-winged things.
Victor Hugo

One of our sea-birds is known as a ‘Seabird’. Confused? Read on…

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Below: ‘Fairy Terns’Other sea-birdsSeeing our sea-birdsRead More

‘Fairy Terns’

‘Seabird’ in Jamestown
‘Seabird’ in Jamestown

Fairy Tern Stamp
Fairy Tern Stamp

Locally known as a ‘Seabird’ or a ‘Fairy Tern’, they are actually White Terns gygis alba{1}.

The white tern is small with white plumage and a long black bill. With a wingspan of about 64cm, it ranges widely across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also nests in some Atlantic islands. The white tern feeds on small fish which it catches by plunge diving.

They are a beautiful sight. If you are walking away from the towns and come near a nest they will hover around you, not apparently in a threatening way but more as if they are curious about this strange creature. In a shaded wood their (mis)name as Fairy Terns becomes apparent. Out in the open they perform spectacular aerobatic displays in pairs or threes (adults and juvenile), making seemingly impossibly sharp turns in perfect synchronisation.

Even more enchanting [than Wirebirds] are the fairy terns. They are most inquisitive and hover a few feet from your face, gazing at you with large liquid eyes. Three of these visit us from time to time.{a}

They nest both inland, in the quieter wooded valleys and also on the cliffs, even above the busy harbour in Jamestown, and also sometimes on buildings. Balanced precariously on a narrow rock ledge or the branch of a tree it can be a wonder that the egg survives to become a chick and that the chick itself manages to constrain its wanderings to its tiny platform. The newly hatched chicks have well developed feet with which to hang on.

Fairy Tern chicks have a tendency to fall out of their precarious nests, and in 2019 a charity was formed to rescue them, support and feed them until maturity and then release them back into the wild. If you find a stranded Fairy Tern chick you can contact the ‘Good Tern’ charity via its Facebook™ page (which is also how you contact them to offer a donation…)

Other sea-birds

We also have nesting sites for several other sea-bird species. Here are some of the more common:

Below: Masked BoobyStorm PetrelTrophy BirdBrown/Black NoddyIdentification chart

Masked Booby

Masked Boobies
Masked Boobies

Masked Boobies
Masked Booby

The Masked Booby sula dactylatra is a large seabird of the booby family, Sulidae. This species breeds on islands in tropical oceans, except in the eastern Atlantic. It is also called the masked gannet or the blue-faced booby.

Locally known as a ‘Gannett’ this is the largest of the booby family, at 74-91cm long, with a 137-165cm wingspan and weighing 1.2-2.35kg. Adults are white with pointed black wings, a pointed black tail, and a dark grey facemask. The sexes are similar, but the male has a yellow bill, and the female’s is greenish yellow; during the breeding season they have a patch of bare, bluish skin at the base of the bill. Juveniles are brownish on the head and upperparts, with a whitish rump and neck collar. The under-parts are white. Adult plumage is acquired over two years.

The masked booby is silent at sea, but has a reedy whistling greeting call at the nesting colonies. While on the breeding grounds, these birds display a wide range of hissing and quacking notes.

Can be seen on Speery Island, Shore Island, George Island and Lots Wife.

Storm Petrel

Storm Petrel
Storm Petrel

The grey-backed storm petrel garrodia nereis is a seabird in the Hydrobatidae family. Storm Petrels feed on planktonic crustaceans and small fish picked from the surface, typically while hovering. Their flight is fluttering and sometimes bat-like.

Storm petrels are the smallest of all the seabirds, ranging in size from 13-26cm in length. They have short wings, square tails and elongated skulls. The legs of all storm petrels are proportionally longer than others of its family (which include albatrosses and shearwaters), but they are very weak and unable to support the bird’s weight for more than a few steps.

Storm petrels live at sea and come to land only when breeding. Little is known of their behaviour and distribution at sea, where they can be hard to find and harder to identify. They are colonial nesters, returning consistently to their birth colonies and nesting sites. Most species nest in crevices or burrows and attend the breeding colonies nocturnally. Pairs form long-term monogamous bonds and share incubation and chick feeding duties. Nesting is highly protracted with incubation taking up to 50 days and fledging another 70 days after that.

The name ‘petrel’ is a diminutive form of ‘Peter’, a reference to the Christian Saint Peter; it was given to these birds because they sometimes appear to walk across the water’s surface. The more specific ‘storm petrel’ is a reference to their habit of hiding in the lee of ships during storms.

Trophy Bird

Trophy Bird
Trophy Bird

What we know as the ‘Trophy Bird’ is actually a Red-billed tropicbird phaethon aethereus. It is also known (elsewhere) as the boatswain bird.

Tropic Bird

The adult is a slender, mainly white bird, 48cm long, excluding the central tail feathers which double the total length, and a one metre wingspan. The long wings have black markings on the flight feathers. There is black through the eye. The bill is red. Sexes are similar, although males average longer tails. Juveniles lack the tail streamers, are greyer-backed, and have a yellow bill. Its wings are made up of very large feather coat.

Brown/Black Noddy

Brown Noddy
Brown Noddy
Black Noddy
Black Noddy

Brown Noddy chick
Brown Noddy chick

The Brown Noddy anous stolidus is, obviously, brown, and inhabits the various small islands that cluster our coast - especially Egg Island. Its wing beats are powerful and deliberate, the wings are fairly broad, the tail is quite long and there is always a paler area visible on the mid-wing. The Brown Noddy is sometimes described as like a dwarfed Brown Booby.

It should not be mistaken for the Black Noddy anous minutus, which is darker (though not quite black), smaller, flies with a higher wing beat frequency, has narrower wings without any paler panel and shows a shorter tail.

Nests on Egg Island, George Island, Shore Island, Peaked Island, Speery Island and various cliffs along the coast.

Identification chart

This chart may help identify seabirds you might see around St Helena:

Seeing our sea-birds

Sea-birds nesting on Egg Island
Sea-birds nesting on Egg Island

You can see many of our sea-birds from the land. Fairy Terns are common in Jamestown, as are Trophy Birds, though the latter normally fly at a great height.

Fairy Terns can also be seen in woodland areas.

Exploring our rocky coast you will have the opportunity to see sea-birds (through binoculars) on most of the islands around our coast. Or why not take a Dolphin Watching trip - these usually call at the appropriately-named ‘Egg Island’, which is such a common sea-bird nesting site it is actually mostly white (with Guano).

St Helena’s birds were shown on the following 2017 stamp issue:

Rats and feral cats are a problem for seabirds nesting on land, which is why the island’s surrounding islands are popular for nesting sites.

Read More

Article: St Helena’s Booby Boomers

By Simon Pipe, 3rd May 2013{2}

A thriving colony of masked boobies has changed the landscape on southern St Helena - by turning the ridges white around Lot’s Wife rock.

Masked Booby

Annalea Beard, of the environment directorate, said: Amazingly this species has re-established itself even though introduced predators such as feral cats and rats are also known to occupy the area.

The colony was of global interest as a result, she said.

A few birds were observed nesting below Lot’s Wife, on the barren southern coast of the island, in 2009. A recent count showed 203 adults in the colony, which has turned the ridges white with guano. The reasons behind their re-colonisation and their ability to succeed remain unclear, said Annalea. Monitoring is essential to make sure the colony continues to be successful.

P.S. don’t forget the famous St Helena Wirebird

{a} W G Tatham in ‘Emigrants to St Helena’, 1966{2}{b} Tourist Office{c} Government of St Helena

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{1} The true ’Fairy Tern’ is actually a different species, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_tern sternula nereis.{2} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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