Least Terns

Each spring the least terns migrate back to Florida to find a mate, nest and raise the next generation of terns. The least terns are a lot of fun to photograph whether it be their courtship rituals, ghost crab skirmishes, or their cute little chicks. This past spring was particularly rewarding for photography so here’s a glimpse of life on the beach for a least tern. Click the images to view larger.

Most trips to visit the least tern colony start well before sunrise. In fact one of the best places in Florida to photograph a sunrise is very close to the least tern colony. This particular beach has exposed coquina rocks on the beach that make for great foreground subjects for a sunrise. I made a few trips to the colony this year, but there was only one morning where I had some decent light and clouds for a good sunrise image.

Atlantic Sunrise
Atlantic Sunrise

On one particular morning, I sat down in the sand to observe the least terns and see if I could find a nest with a chick. Little did I know at the time that I had chosen to sit right in front of a Wilson’s plover nest. The nest was well hidden and I didn’t see the eggs in the grasses until the adult plover returned to incubate the eggs further. I kept hoping that these eggs would hatch during one of my visits but it was not to be. The least terns and the Wilson’s plovers nested later in the year than usual. I found out later that these plovers hatched just a couple of days after my last visit. Hopefully I’ll have better luck next year.

Wilson's Plover Nest
Wilson’s Plover Nest

Prospects for finding a least tern nest with chicks wasn’t looking very good on my first trip. I brought back far more images of the ghost crab skirmishes on my first two visits than anything else. But things began to look up when I found one adult least tern with an egg shell. An empty egg shell means that there is a newly hatched chick. The adult promptly flew away with the eggshell to dispose of it and I held out hope that I would get to see the newly hatched chick.

Least Tern with eggshell
Least Tern with eggshell

While the newly hatched chick never made an appearance that day, I did find one that was about a day old in a neighboring nest. Least terns nest right in the sand on the beach, so a “nest” is really just a depression or scrape in the sand where the eggs are laid. This little chick was patiently waiting for his little brother or sister to come in the world. While he waited for his sibling, he provided a couple of hours of great entertainment and photos for me.

Breakfast is served! - Least Terns
Breakfast is served!

At one point he decided he would try to climb over mom’s back instead of going around her.

Shortcut - Least Terns

Needless to say at only a day old, that didn’t quite turn out like he might have hoped.

Perhaps not the best shortcut after all.
Perhaps not the best shortcut after all.

After a while he became more adventurous and wandered a few feet from the scrape so that I could get some images of by himself.

Roaming - Least Terns

My day on the sand only got better from there, but I’ll save those images for my next post. Stay tuned!


  • Ed Rosack

    July 13, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Great photos, Michael!

    • Michael

      July 13, 2015 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks, Ed!

  • Jess Yarnell

    July 13, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Ooooh, your sunrises are awesome. I remember that day with the tiny tern! What a great find. Your “failed shortcut” shot and caption are priceless.

    • Michael Libbe

      July 14, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Thanks, Jess! That was a fun morning.

  • Debbie Tubridy

    July 14, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Adorable shots Michael! Looks like your time paid off in a big way!

  • […] opportunities. First there were the crab wars and then earlier this week I introduced you to a newcomer to the least tern colony. Today I have a few more images from the colony, specifically their latest […]