Why so Angry, Mr. Tern?

By Jim Morris

I’m clearly in ‘old technology guy’ territory in the video game realm. The last one I remember playing is Angry Birds. Turns out I don’t need to play it ever again, because I can watch a better, real-life version playing out in Sacramento Valley rice fields. Black Terns are angry and fantastic theater!

Black Tern

While wildlife can be found in Northern California rice country year-round, summer is one of my favorite times for viewing. The rice plants are small and there’s new life on the way. Shorebirds are nesting and raising their young. Our summer visitors include some spectacular birds, including Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets and the aforementioned Black Terns.

Some birds, like American Bitterns, are shy and try to hide in rice fields. Black Terns are on the other end of the spectrum. They are visible, noisy and a tad bit angry – which, in my estimation, makes them interesting and oh so fun!

Black Terns are aerial foragers, meaning they get their food by doing acrobatic flying over marshy areas. In the Sacramento Valley, their base of operations includes shallow-flooded rice fields, swooping and scooping up insects, while frequently loudly vocalizing along the way.

Rice fields are home to more than 200 wildlife species, and the tern is a classic example of how precious this habitat is. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the Central Valley population nests in rice fields. Black Terns have lost about half of their North American population over the last half-century, according to the Cornell Department of Ornithology. I’ve personally observed a hearty, growing population of these birds in area rice fields, which provide ample food and a comfortable place to rest when they need it most – nesting and raising their young.

I love to watch their aerial ballet. I love to have them fly parallel to my car and give me an earful as I observe from a distance. They aren’t as majestic as a Bald Eagle or colorful as an Avocet, but they’re fascinating and welcome just the same!

Jim Morris is Communications Manager for the California Rice Commission. Jim has worked in communications for more than 20 years. When he’s not on the job, he enjoys his family, faith, football, outrageous monster stories and running marathons.