Water Closet for 9-3-13 Good Tern
Last week we Closeteers received an interesting story from crackerjack heavy equipment operator Leon Rubchinuk. This Middleton native’s sharp eyes have seen many things on jobs along the AtlanticCoast from the Gulf to the Maritimes. He is also a sharp eyed amateur naturalist who can vividly describe the fishing styles of ospreys, eagles and seagulls as he did for one old Closeteer the other afternoon. This natural naturalist has been observing nature closely since early childhood. He often enthusiastically describes his encounters with wildlife big and small around the neighborhood and beyond. He sees a lot that others don’t.
His latest story is about a rescue at sea, well not quite ocean, but rather on the tidal waters of the MysticRiver in Everett where his outfit’s job of repairing a bridge involved moving barges loaded with steel around. On a large empty barge to be moved, he spotted common terns flitting around a lonely tuft of grass. To admirers of these graceful fast flyers there is nothing “common” about them. Upon inspection he found two downy day-old terns hiding beneath the grass. Each still had a temporary egg tooth on the tip of its beak. Their parents were in attack mode as Leon checked things out. They repeatedly dove down at his head as gutsy terns will do. An old Closeteer has seen them attack a great black-backed gull twelve times their weight. Leon, not fat, but 800 times a tern’s weight, while still under attack decided that because of the work planned on the barge the babies were in jeopardy. The parents mistakenly thought him the danger. He gently carried the young and ferried them in the company work boat to another smaller barge moored nearby that wasn’t going to be used. This would be the new site for the “nest”, in a tern’s case really no proper nest at all. Their “nests” seem to be the spots where incubating eggs and hatched chicks are for a while. In this case the parents had chosen a couple wispy grass plants somehow clinging to the otherwise bare deck as shelter. Tern nests are often simply slight depressions on bare islet beaches.
The human rescuer wasn’t getting much respect from his skeptical fellow workers. They laughed and said his attempts would never work; however, the tern parents may have been catching on. After the chicks were at the new site their attacks slacked off. Leon then worried about the openness on the smaller, idle barge and returned for the tuffs of grass. At the new location he placed the chicks under the wispy blades so they wouldn’t be seen by enemies from above.
This simple story unfolding amidst heavy construction equipment including tugs and bridges on the busy, urban, MysticRiver off BostonHarbor made us happy. Leon was certainly pleased in its telling. Like the “tough but oh so gentle”1 Leon, we too want the babies to grow up and participate in the aerial life of terns. As we often do in the Closet, we again visited our favorite birder Edward Howe Forbush. We don’t use the adjective “late”. He lives on in his three great tomes on Massachusetts birds.2 One June in 1908 alone near the elbow of Cape Cod in a gale, his skiff filled with water and his oars drifted off. Seemingly unconcerned he watched terns gathering in great numbers above schools of small fish being spooked right out of the water by larger predator fish. He knew the fishermen nearby would see this activity and come with nets and upon filling their dories would take him ashore. Here is some of what he wrote later about the scene.
“. . . Then the water all about fairly boils under the savage onset of their
pursuers. The sharp eyed terns, too, spying the commotion, flock in
from afar to feast on the luckless “fishlings.” To see the terns thus
fishing is a sight to stir the blood. High in the sunlight they hover
above the surging sea. Below the blue waves roll on, to break in foam
on the yellow sand. The whirling, screaming, light-winged birds, strongly contrasted with the smoky murk to seaward, alternately climb the air and
plunge like plummets straight down into the waves – rising again and
again, fluttering, poising, screaming, striking. So now like birds gone mad
the terns flashed from sky to sea. It fairly rained birds; hundreds of them
were shooting down into the angry waves. They played with gale and
Wow! We like to think that Leon, hunter, fisherman, and all around outdoorsman, deeply sensed such events in the downy chicks’ future. His patient insistence on relocation probably greatly increased their chances.
1 From a mid last century Firestone Tire advertisement
2 Forbush, Edward Howe, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States
3 Ibid p.107, Vol. I