Content Contributors

Don Lyons – Assistant Professor (Senior Research) at Oregon State University.
Tim Lawes – Faculty Research Assistant at Oregon State University.


The 2016 breeding season is wrapping up, and the Caspian terns are on the move.  Some are busy prospecting for next year’s breeding sites in the north, while others are ready to enjoy the winter weather in southern California or Mexico.  This brief slideshow runs through maps which summarize the movements of each of the tagged terns during the 2015 and 2016 breeding seasons (01 April – 31 July).

We saw each of these birds return to the breeding grounds later in 2016 than in 2015, but we are not sure why that was the case.  It could be because raising young is energetically costly and, with the exception of A795, all of these terns were observed with nests during the 2015 breeding season.  A795 may not have attempted to nest, but she did travel extensively throughout the 2015 breeding season; another energetically costly activity.  As such, all of these birds may have needed a little more time this year to get in shape for the trip back north to the breeding grounds.

Also, notice that these birds used similar migration paths during each of their migration trips.  That isn’t always the case with Caspian terns in the Pacific Flyway.  Although migrating along the same route may have some obvious advantages, we have seen other tagged terns use different migration routes within and between years. These featured terns may be creatures of habit, but the ability of other Caspian terns to migrate along alternate routes demonstrates that they are capable of some behavioral plasticity when it comes to long distance travel.

As terns complete their nesting effort or suffer failure, they are no longer tied to a specific area around a colony. For Caspian terns in the Pacific Flyway, they typically disperse away from the breeding colony and wander the breeding range. Often these post-breeding dispersals are to the Salish Sea, which is northward from where most birds nest. These dispersals allow birds to utilize profitable foraging areas prior to migration, and to check out the status of other colonies for possible future use. As of late June, we are seeing F367 conduct dispersal trips to the Salish Sea.

We may be seeing a somewhat different behavior from A765. On 24 June, this individual moved south from the Columbia River estuary. We’ll see if that is a sustained direction of movement, but that individual may be starting his southward migration for the season!

In 2015, we were fortunate to tag and track two birds that formed a mated pair: A765 (male) and F367 (female). We captured them in eastern Washington state at Crescent Island prior to the 2015 breeding season. Following capture, tagging, and release, they quickly moved to the Columbia River estuary and nested at East Sand Island. Monitoring crews there observed them nesting through the 2015 season and confirmed that they raised a chick to fledging age.

It has been interesting to track their movements since completing that nesting effort! This breeding season they apparently have not resumed nesting together. F367 arrived back to the Columbia River estuary in early May and was tracked in the vicinity of East Sand Island consistently for almost the entire next month. On 30 May she was tracked heading north to the Salish Sea. The male, A765, stayed south this spring for much longer than most terns. It didn’t arrive in the Columbia River estuary this year until 08 June. Coincidentally, F367 returned to the Columbia River estuary from the Salish Sea on about the same day and they both were present in the area until 13 June, when F367 headed north to the Salish Sea again. So far this breeding season, the period from 08-13 June is the only time they have overlapped near any colony.

As of 24 June, A765 appears to be heading south again. He doesn’t appear likely to attempt to nest this year. It is difficult to say if F367 attempted nesting in May before wandering off to the Salish Sea. Her tracking behavior is consistent with nesting, but could also represent her using the colony as a safe roosting site while she foraged in convenient and productive nearby areas.

This is just one interesting anecdote of Caspian tern mating behavior, but probably represents a common occurrence. Other researchers have seen some mate fidelity across years (on studies of banded terns), but if one mate dies or disappears (or doesn’t show up as in this case) the other can quickly form a pair bond with a new mate.

This map was created using satellite location data from all of our tagged terns to show the areas used between 01 January and 31 March, 2016. The red areas indicate the places where the probability of finding an individual tagged tern is 50% and the orange encompasses the area where that probability is 90% (note: higher percentage areas also include the lower percentage areas contained within). Take a look at the previously posted animation to see how our featured terns fit into the overall distribution of the wintering grounds.