Wildlife & Wild Places

Attack of the Terns

terns: love & war

Typically it’s only in an Alfred Hitchcock movie that you have to worry about an all out attack from dive bombing birds, but arctic terns will turn that fiction into reality if you step across some invisible line in the sand they’ve drawn around their territory.  Recently on a trip to the Arctic with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Explorer I apparently crossed that line.

The arctic terns were putting on quite a show at one of our stops in Svalbard, Norway.  It’s true of many creatures, humans included, that nothing motivates a male more than his desire to impress the opposite sex, and these guys were doing some spectacular aerobatics in an effort to curry favor with the ladies.  They would hover in the air like a helicopter surveying the water below until they spotted a small fish, then dive down, grab the fish and carry it back as present to the female.  The gift is apparently the tern equivalent of expensive jewelry.

But in the course of filming the action, I stepped to close to a nesting area and got a fish eye’s view of diving terns.  My head was now the bombing target and the bird’s beaks were raining down like incoming missiles.  Looking around I spotted the nest.  It was a safe distance away and in no danger of being stepped on by me, but the protective terns had decided I was close enough and launched their attack.

I talk with Lindblad naturalist Brent Stephenson about arctic terns and their behavior in love and war on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend.  So tune in to the show and tune in to adventure.

Boyd Matson, in his work for National Geographic, has been bitten, scratched, or pooped on, and occasionally kissed by most of the creatures found at your local zoo. What he refers to as his job, others might describe as a career spent attending summer camp for adults.

Currently Matson is the host of the weekly radio show, “National Geographic Weekend.” Conducting interviews from the studio and from the field, Matson connects with some of the greatest explorers and adventurers on the planet to transport listeners to the far corners of the world and to the hidden corners of their own backyards.

Matson also writes about his experiencs in his monthly column, “Boyd Matson Unbound” for National Geographic Traveler magazine, produces videos for National Geographic.com, and serves as a spokesperson for the National Geographic Society.

  • Ima Ryma

    Arctic terns try to avoid man,
    Migrating yearly pole to pole,
    Flying on high o’er oceans’ span,
    Maintaining air traffic control.
    But terns must come to ground to nest,
    And there must be ever alert
    To guarding against human pest,
    Who at times deserve to be hurt,
    By getting struck by claw and beak.
    With a coloring of dark red,
    Which blends nicely with goal to seek –
    A human running with head bled.

    Humans are nothing but a curse,
    Turning any tern for the worse.

  • Sue McColl

    Another very interesting and informative post!

  • Sue McColl

    Another very interesting and informative post!

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