Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Today I want to resurrect this story since it is almost two years ago to the day when the rare avian vagrant, the white-winged tern, showed up just down the road from where I currently live.


The story begins on a beautiful Thursday morning (August 10th 2017) when I had originally planned to be birding in a neighboring county with some friends but chose to hang back so I could see my wife off when she left for a conference in Hershey PA in the early afternoon. I figured since I was home and it was my day off, I might as well hit up some of the local lakes for an hour or two. I had plans to stop by Nessmuk Lake, The Muck, Woodland Park, and Hamilton Lake. As luck, or fate (or whatever you’d prefer to believe) would have it, Nessmuk Lake was my only birding stop that morning, and for good reason. 

I parked my car in the lot next to the pavilion, grabbed my camera and binoculars and proceeded towards the south shore of Nessmuk Lake.  I stopped abruptly 40 yards short of the water’s edge at the sight of a dark colored tern perched on one of the pylons that jut straight out of the water next to shore.  The bird was facing me head-on so I could see that the head and breast were black with some white spotting on the forehead. 

Believing I was in the presence of a rare migrating black tern I called my birding friends, Kathy Riley and John Corcoran.  They arrived on the scene about 10 minutes later and the three of us watched as it flew around the lake. As we watched it, Kathy said, “I don’t think that’s a black tern.” “What do you think it is?” John and I asked. Kathy opened her field guide to the terns and pointed to a photo of a much rarer white-winged tern which was depicted next to black tern in her guide. Sure enough, we had a match. That tern, with its tail looking like it was dipped in white paint, white upper wings, and under wings black to the shoulder with white primary and secondary feathers was definitely a white-winged tern!  

And so, it was me with my camera, John with his spotting scope, and Kathy with her field guide that confirmed the ID for us. We got the word out quickly and within a few hours, crowds were beginning to form at the lakeshore. Mostly locals at first, but then people from all over Pennsylvania and New York were there by evening of that first day. At 5pm a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology arrived. 

I was told by the Cornell crew that one of the reasons the tern decided to settle at Nessmuk was because the habitat is very good for it. I was told that in Europe, white-winged terns are primarily found in healthy shallow marsh habitats that have good perches close to the water’s surface. That is also a description of what we currently see at Nessmuk Lake.

It seemed that every time the white-winged tern would leave its perch during the day, barn swallows would mob it repeatedly, and waxwings always seemed curious about its presence, but not as aggressive as the swallows.

My favorite experiences with the white-winged tern were in the evenings, just before dark, when it would go into a feeding frenzy making pass after pass over the shallow marsh at the south end of Nessmuk Lake in company with chimney swifts and cedar waxwings.  The chimney swifts especially seemed to welcome the white-winged tern and there were moments when it seemed to assimilate with their flock, moving in unison with the swifts through areas of densest insect activity. I think the evening flights of the white-winged tern, its shape, movement, and behavior, very closely resemble that of a feeding common nighthawk (may speak to the swift’s acceptance).

Over the course of four days, the Tiadaghton Audubon Society estimates that 300 people came to see the white-winged tern for themselves. It very quickly became a widely sought after bird for a number of reasons. One, it’s a Eurasian breeder, and traveling to the shores (and inland!) of North America is not part of this species’ regular migration pathway. This species of tern has been reported in North America on only a little more than twenty times, ever. In addition to that, this is the first documented sighting of a white-winged tern in the United States during the calendar year of 2017 and the first documented sighting of a white-winged tern in the state of Pennsylvania, ever. It is also a very strikingly colored and beautiful bird; an adult transitioning from breeding to non-breeding plumage. So it’s easy to see how this bird rose to fame so quickly. But apparently it held little to no regard of its celebrity status, as it then departed without notice sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning.

As I reflect upon this experience, there are questions I want to ask the bird (that I will never know the answer to!) like “Where did you come from?” and “How did you get here?” I am filled with gratitude to have had such an amazing experience with such a beautiful and interesting avian traveler and to have met so many kind and respectful people from so many places (some who traveled from as far as Colorado, Texas, and Florida!) who share my love and appreciation of birds. 

Another observation I’ve made through this experience is that it pays to nurture healthy ecosystems.  Many of our visitors, and especially those who traveled far distances to get here, asked for recommendations concerning food and lodging around Wellsboro.  The presence of this rare bird had a significant impact on local businesses during its stay, especially on restaurants and hotels.  If not for the healthy status of our local bodies of water and the land adjacent to it, it’s not very likely that our national celebrity the white-winged tern would have made a visit. It pays to nurture healthy ecosystems, and this is something we can all participate in together, for the sake of the birds and our local economy.

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