WHITE TERN – (Gygis alba) – Manu-o-Kū – Indigenous
DESCRIPTION: As its English name implies, this small seabird is completely white with black eyes and a black, sharp bill. The feet and legs are grey, and the bird is about 12 inches (30 cm) long. Both sexes are similar. The tail is short and forked. This bird can hover for short periods of time, and can do so around humans.
NAME: the White Tern is also called the Fairy Tern, but the latter is a different species. The name ‘Tern’ comes from Old English ‘Stearn’ to designate that bird. Initially this tern was classified in the genus ‘Sterna’, but later in the genus ‘Gygis’. The latter name is from ancient Greek and refers to a mythical bird. As for ‘alba’, it is Latin for ‘white’.
HABITAT: Along the coasts usually, moves inland during breeding season.
DIET: Feeds mainly on small fish, that chicks swallow whole.
NESTING: This tern often does not built any nest, and merely lays its one egg on a branch fork in a large tree. This is why, in Honolulu, trees with active nests are marked with blue ribbons to warn tree maintenance crews of their presence (see photo below).
DISTRIBUTION: The white tern is widespread around the Pacific Ocean. In Hawaii most of the population is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As for the main islands it is restricted to Oahu on the south shore. It is the official bird of Honolulu because of its presence in the city, including its nesting sites.
CONSERVATION: Due to its wide range this tern species is not listed as at risk. However that does not mean it’s not without threats, one being predation of eggs by feral animals such as mongoose and rats. In Honolulu blue tape is installed around trees where nests are found, to alert tree trimming crews of their presence. Proper tree trimming actually provides better nest sites for these birds.
NOTES: Why a tern, which is a pelagic seabird, would choose to build its nest in the middle of highrises and the hustle and bustle of high traffic and noise? It offers them protection from climbing predators.
These birds fly out at sea in the morning hunting for fish, and fly back to land at night. Thanks to their feeding habits, traditional seafarers were using them as an indicator that land was not far.
https://www.whiteterns.org/manuoku.html (a very detailed website on the white tern, which includes nesting maps in Honolulu)
Fact sheet from Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources: White Tern – Hawaii DLNR – Oct. 2005
The first video shows the white tern on its nest and toward the end I zoomed out and back in to give a better idea of where exactly the nest is located:
This video below shows a pair of white terns, with the parent on the ‘nest’ checking on the egg toward the end of the video:
Thirteen days after the first video of these white terns, this parent is still quietly incubating its egg :
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