Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia, photographed at Bolivar Flats, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 16 August 2008 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/640s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

Scared yet? This is about the meanest-looking bird I’ve ever seen, which identifies it immediately as a Caspian Tern.

But what are the features that make this animal look so intimidating? Start at the rear. The back end of this bird is square, the tail short and the wingtips (for a tern) thick and blunt–none of that graceful trailing-off-into-nothingness that the streamer-tailed species show. The body is thick and muscular, the legs stout and reptilian. The massive, cylindrical neck is topped by a huge square head, and the bill is a carrot-colored dagger, with a mean angled notch in the lower mandible.

Plumage and soft-part colors will confirm the identification–but don’t turn your back on this one while you’re checking the field guide! The upper surface of the primaries (visible on the right wing) is much paler than their blackish undersurfaces (visible on the left wing). The black face mask merges into the heavy black streaking on the crown and forehead, making even this non-breeding bird look dark-capped. And the bill has an extensive dark tip, unique among the large terns.

What about this bird’s age? Is it a teenage gang punk, or a hardened adult offender? I see a few scallop-tipped feathers on the lower back, and the tertials appear to have ill-defined dark centers. This Caspian Tern is going into its first winter–and it looks like a survivor to me.

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 JPS
    September 27, 2008

    Off the top of my head I’ll say royal tern.

  2. #2 aedis
    September 27, 2008

    Caspian Tern.

    Not much else with a black tipped red bill and that bulky size.

    Forsters, Arctic, Common terns are much more elegant.

  3. #3 Jim VB
    September 27, 2008

    From the bottom of my heart I’ll say Caspian Tern.

  4. #4 bobk
    September 27, 2008

    Junk-yard Tern.
    You ust can’t capture the jizz in a drawing.

  5. #5 bobk
    September 27, 2008

    Caspian Tern

  6. #6 JohnB
    September 27, 2008

    a very bedraggled-looking Caspian Tern.

  7. #7 Machairodus
    September 27, 2008

    It’s a Prince Caspian Tern

  8. #8 Fia
    September 28, 2008

    Agree with the Caspian Tern. That bill is nothing else.
    I have dear memories with that one.

  9. #9 Greg
    September 28, 2008

    Caspian Tern, no doubt………..

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