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Photographing Terns

By Adam Felde, contributor,
See his work at:

Photographing Terns is great fun.  They are a little like gulls but much smaller and faster, and unlike gulls they don't float on the water.  In the U.S., there are about 15 different species.  The larger ones weigh up to a pound and have a wing span around 40 inches.  The smaller ones weigh about two ounces with 20-inch wing spans.  Southern California is home to four or five species.  The most common, the Elegant Tern, is the focus of this article.  

In early summer, Terns are in the midst of raising their young, which translates into a lot of time -- and many potentially great shots -- catching fish for food.  Great fliers with spectacular fishing technique, Terns plunge-dive head long into the water from heights of 10 to 30 feet high. They are very quick, aggressive birds, who engage in loud mid-air fights with each other.

At the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, Calif., you can easily find them fishing in groups up to 40 birds at a time in an area called the Tidal Gates.

Photographing them can be a real challenge, but much fun too!  It is best done at this location in the afternoon when the wind, the sun, and the birds are all in the right place. From a photographer perspective their fishing activity breaks down into four phases:

  1. The first phase involves the birds getting into position over the fish in the water. 
  2. In the second phase, which I call the "hovering phase," the birds pull up into the wind, flapping their wings to hover while they attempt to identify the fish they are going after. This is the easiest time to photograph them, and with a high-speed camera you can capture some great shots with their wings extended.
  3. The dive is the third phase and the most difficult to photograph as there are almost no visual clues about when the plunge will occur. It happens in an instant.  The bird rolls over on its side or back and plunges towards the water in a near vertical dive.  This phase is over much faster than the time it took you to read this sentence!
  4. In the final phase, the Tern, now beneath the water, attempts to catch the fish in its beak, surface, and fly off or return for another try.  Often, as a Tern leaves the water with a fish in its mouth, it will be chased by others who seem to think that it is easier to steal a fish than catch their own!

Having said all that, here are some Images:

Phase I: Finding the Fish 

Two in formation

Image #2.  Squawking

Phase II.  Hovering In place

Image #3.  Hovering

Image4.  Manuvering

Phase III  Diving

Image #5  Dive Number 1
Image #6  Near vertical

Image #7  On its back (Here the Tern has rolled over on its back for position
but still maintains sight of its target by twisting its head upright.)

Phase IV.  Out of the Water

Image # 8  Leaving the Water ... no fish
Image # 9.  Got one!

    Image # 10.  And another


Image #11.  It’s hard work!

Image # 12.  Shake and shout!
(Frequently after leaving the water,
they will shake it off with a violent, mid-air twist!)

Image #13.  Mid-Air Collision
(The topmost bird has a fish that the other five are trying to take away)

Some useful items for photographing Terns:

  • A lens of at least 200mm in length is needed at Bolsa Chica.  Most often, I use either a Nikor 300mm f4.0, a really fast focusing lens, or a 70-200mm f2.8 with a 1.4 Tele-extender. Zooming can be quite useful in this situation. On occasion, I use a 200mm - 400mm f4.0 mounted on a tripod.

  • Because Terns have black eyes surrounded by black patches, I use flash (in flash fill mode) with a Better Beamer to enhance the chances of getting a reflection from the eye.

  • The terns will always hover and dive into the wind. Most importantly, they will also leave the water in the same direction as the dive.

  • About half of the time when in a hover, they will signal the start of a dive by beating their wings noticeably faster. 

  • I’ve found that the best way to capture a dive is to use the camera in a vertical orientation (portrait mode) rather than horizontal mode.  In horizontal mode, the bird travels through viewfinder faster than I can react so vertical mode provides a longer reaction time to catch the bird as it is diving “down” the frame.  I try and place the bird in the upper left hand corner of the viewfinder, and the let the auto focus do the work as I frantically push the shutter release button. 

  • Be aware that there is usually a one stop (or more) difference between exposures of the bird in the air with a sky background and one with a dark blue water background.

  • Be prepared for many blank images, but then that’s the beauty of digital!

If you get a chance to photograph these birds, give it a try. They will both give your reflexes a work out and put a smile on your face!

Adam Felde

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