Terns are among the most beautiful and graceful of oceanic birds, and also among the smallest. They are found in all waters, in the Arctic and Antarctic, in the new world and in the old.
Someone once called them the swallows of the sea, but I think that an inapt description.
Though much larger than swallows, terns are slimmer built and the dazzling whiteness of their plumage, long narrow wings and forked tail lend their mastery of the air a fairy charm. Moreover they are not really exclusively oceanicthere are terns in plenty in every backwater and creek, and river terns far inland, coasting along the beds of almost dried up streams.
The Indian River Tern is easy enough to identify, a resident bird along inland waters, unmistakably a sharp-winged, fork-tailed, red-legged, red-beaked tern with the top of the head and nape black it is often found even along quite minor streams, and I have seen it in the Deccan, hawking along a river bed which was almost dried up with only a few deep pools here and there.
The Black-bellied Tern is also frequently found along rivers and lakes, though it also frequents the coastit is a smaller bird altogether.
Coastal terns are much harder to spot, especially as many of them come to our creeks and backwaters from near Persia and other far-off places in which they breed, and are in eclipse plumage when they visit us.
Many times while on a boat in the Tada Lake I have been surprised by the easy swiftness and dexterous flight of terns-there are quite a few terns here, including the Gull-billed Tern, the Whiskered Tern and an occasional Crested Tern. There are a number of Brown-headed Gulls which follow the furrow of the sail-boat, picking up the disturbed fish, and I have often seen a tern dive at the same fish as a gull, beating it to the prey by sheer speed and air-mastery, sometimes diving right under the broader and slower winged gull, and then rocketing high above it with the fish in its beak, all in one spectacular movement.
Terns breed in colonies on shingly river beds and open flats, but I have never seen a breeding colony of terns.
They are taxonomically close to the gulls, which they do not resemble in shape and flight. Some terns rest on the water, others (like the Whiskered Tern) prefer to rest on a stake or a sand bank. Some are almost entirely oceanic but even they breed on terra firma.
My picture is of a Gull-billed Tern in flight-it is the only one I like of nearly a hundred flight pictures of terns that I have attempted.
(This was published on 25 April 1966)