Right Time and Place: Black Terns

A lot of birding is dumb luck.

It about being in the right place at the right time. You happen to be there, the Davis Water Treatment Plant, at the right time, ten minutes before noon on May 4, 2019. If you were here ten minutes too early or ten minutes too late, the birds would have been missed.

Black tern is bird that I have wanted to add to my lifelist list for a long time. It is a bird seen in transit in the Central Valley as it heads north in the spring to the small ponds and lakes of its breeding grounds in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada.

It does seem to be a matter of luck and being in the right time in the right place and May at the Woodland Water Treatment Plant was the right time and place. Black tern had been seen here in the previous days so Dickcissel and I reckoned our changes were pretty good.

After a two and a half hour search, it seemed pretty clear that black tern was not here and whatever birds that had been seen on the previous days had headed on north.

So we decided to head over to the nearby Davis Water Treatment Plant and try there. That morning a rare ruddy turnstone and two black turnstones were being seen. These birds are normally seen on the coast and can be common on the California coast. And if we were persistent enough, we could pick through the dowitchers to find a lone Baird’s sandpiper.

As we pulled up there were already four birders scoping the ponds, no doubt looking at the wayward turnstones. We pulled up to park when we noticed two dark, long-winged short-tailed terns. Black terns!!! Once parked we got out our bins on this much sought after species that had alluded me in California, Texas, and Central America.

The two terns past back and forth over the ponds for about five minutes and then unceremoniously disappeared from our lives. If we had dilly dallied five minutes longer at Woodland, we would have completely dipped on these terns. Such is birding.

After getting our fill of dowitchers, turnstones, and the lone Baird’s, we headed further down the road to scope the avian life on some other ponds.

We were entertained by a pair of killdeer that wandered around the road way, looking at us with their large, inquisitive eyes and calling their eerie call. I though it odd that they were hanging around and the broken-wing display should have really been a hint but I had black tern on the brain.

A quick killdeer field sketch.

A quick search of the opposite side of the road explained the killdeer’s behavior. There were four very camouflaged eggs among the rocks on the side of the road in a rocky scape that is a killdeer’s “nest”. We were way too close for the killdeer so we promptly headed back to the car and hightailed it out of there.

Just like the two black terns!


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