I’ve described terns, with their distinct calls, as aerial barflies with too much whiskey and smoke on the voice box. Each tern is raspy in its own way, and Caspian Terns have a sharp croak that pierces the air over my balcony. They’re huddled on a warehouse rooftop one minute, hundreds of them, blurred by a rising heat that’s thick as shower glass. Then they’re jetting over the bridge like little blanched superheroes, wings stretched back in capes.
They dip and plunge across the Bay and into Puget Sound, nearly tumbling tail over black beret, as the red tip of their bill touches water. They announce the glory of their catch long before I see them bolting back to the roof with salmon smolt in the bill. Sometimes they arrive from sea with a wingman running interference on other terns and gulls who’d have that fish. And, sometimes, they etch figure eights and barrel rolls across the sky, in play or friendship or avoidance, flying in formation with fellow terns who swoop in front of my lens with just the right glint of sun on the wing.
Caspian Terns are the big guys of North American terns — the biggest, in fact. You’d think they were gulls if you didn’t know. But the flapping of gulls is positively languid compared to the streamlined jetting that is Caspian. When photographed, these terns become predictable and lovely, angelic white and whiskey-voiced . . . and I become a grateful interloper in their parade.
In the last light, long past magic hour, a squadron of terns buzzes by from my left, in perfect diamond formation, descending on the Sound with landing gears down. Then, white bellies skip along the surface, one after the other, noses awash in the saltwater that streams over their black berets. They rise, shake off, and repeat. I’m overcome by the impossibility of this grace. It’s Firebird Suite, rising on thermals.
I pack up my gear so they can fish alone in the waning sunlight, off the point of the park where I’m the last human silhouette out the gate.
As I walk onto my balcony at home, I hear them, now shadows, echoing across the industrial gully that beckons them homeward to their roof — or, as they see it, their flat-top beach above Seattle.
More info on Caspian Terns:
- Caspian Tern: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Caspian Tern Studies from Bird Research Northwest
- As the World Terns: Caspian Tern Blog