Crab Wars

Yes, its time for another episode of Crab Wars!

Each year when I visit the least tern colony on the Atlantic Coast I usually get to see a couple of battles between the nesting least terns and the ghost crabs that inhabit the beach sand. The least terns are only in town for the summer, but the ghost crabs live on the beach all year long. The least terns need the beach to lay their eggs and raise their chicks, so they defend their colony from all intruders, including those who inhabit the very sand that they have scraped their nest out of. Meanwhile, the ghost crabs are hungry and are naturally attracted to all the activity in the colony as the chicks tend to leave some crumbs for the crabs to enjoy. The least terns don’t give up their territory very easily and neither do the ghost crabs. So lets check in with this year’s episode of Crab Wars. Click the images to view larger.

A few years ago I was fortunate to create an image of a least tern and a ghost crab battling each other for real estate. I really liked the image and so did the editors at Digital Photography magazine as they selected this image as their first place winner in their My Best Shot contest that year.

Least Tern and Ghost Crab
Least Tern and Ghost Crab

Over the next few years, the tern colony didn’t do as well and I didn’t make as many visits. This summer the colony has 181 nests (no, I didn’t count them … the bird steward volunteered that information) and there is no shortage of opportunities. The chicks haven’t been all that cooperative this year, but the crab wars have been quite entertaining. The skirmishes start off quite simple with the least terns trying to ward off the crabs.

The approach - Crab Wars
The approach – Crab Wars

Sometimes the terns will get right in the face of the crabs.

Hey buddy, get lost! - Crab Wars
Hey buddy, get lost! – Crab Wars

Occasionally neighbors will join in to ward off the intruder.

Three against one - Crab Wars
Three against one – Crab Wars

If the crab doesn’t move along, things begin to get animated.

Look Out! - Crab Wars
Look Out! – Crab Wars

As a defensive measure, the crab will stand up on his legs to frighten the terns.

Boo! - Crab Wars
Boo! – Crab Wars

But as with most fights, someone is bound to get hurt. It’s all fun until someone pokes an eye out … or grabs a crab claw.

That's going to leave a mark - Crab Wars
That’s going to leave a mark – Crab Wars

Eventually both participants retreat to their own corner, only to come out of to fight again.

Ghost Crab - Crab Wars
Ghost Crab – Crab Wars

I’m looking forward to returning for more interesting encounters.


  • Jess Yarnell

    June 10, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    What neat photos! I love the action in “Look Out.” How cool that you actually captured the bird biting the crab. I keep missing that shot. Although I did catch one frame where the crab was hanging from the bird’s tail…that couldn’t be comfortable…

    • Michael

      June 10, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      I was lucky that the action was close enough to get a crab claw shot like that. As you know, many of the skirmishes occur way in the back of the colony for decent images. Looking forward to getting more!

  • Kin Baker

    June 10, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Michael, what a fun list of photos of the Crab War! It was very interesting,
    I didn’t know there was a Least Tern. I didn’t even know the Most Tern either!!

    I really like your posts. You are both a great photographer and a very good writer.
    You give a lot of information and humor as you display such beautiful photos.

    Congratulations to you!

    • Michael

      June 10, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      Thank you very much, Kin. That’s very kind of you. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

  • Jim Urbach

    June 10, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    wonderful article and images on crab wars, congrats on your winning image

    • Michael

      June 10, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      Thank you, Jim!

  • Margaret

    June 11, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Thanks for the fun of watching the wars. Do the crabs ever win? I know they have determination, but it seems the tern actually has a better defense.\

    Once again, thanks, and I do enjoy your writing and your photography.

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