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Fairy Terns are considered by some to be the most beautiful of all sea birds. They nest in trees, preferring to lay a single egg in its forks or on the niche of a branch. Many of these precariously placed eggs are lost in bad weather.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

October 27, 2000
The Fairy Terns of Christmas Island
Real Audio


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson talking to you from Christmas Island in the equatorial pacific. The seabird populations nesting on Christmas Island include some of the largest and most impressive colonies in the tropical oceans. In fact the entire island is a sanctuary and is an important breeding ground for 18 different species of sea birds.

Today some of the crew were given a guided tour of the bird sanctuary on Cook Islet (named after Cpt. James Cook) by a fisheries and wildlife officer. Nine species of seabirds nest here, some, such as the Sooty tern are present year round, seldom venturing out of site of land, while others such as the shearwaters and petrels fly very long distances to feed in the plankton rich seas of the tropical convergence zone. These seabirds can be found at different times of the year, depending on their nesting patterns. As we approached the shore of the islet in the dingy, an overwhelming chorus of birds was there to greet us, the sky above the tree line was a swirling congregation of terns and Noddys. Upon landing, we walked among the colonies, it was obvious that the Sooty terns and Fairy or White terns were by far the most abundant daylight species. But it was the fairy terns that consistently captured our attention. These pure white terns are exquisite little birds, and are considered by many to be the most beautiful and graceful of all the seabirds.

The flat uniformity of the islet supports low shrubs with thick succulent leaves used to store moisture, and sparse dry trees, a result of the salt laden winds and irregular rainfall. Everywhere we looked the little fairies hovered, often only inches from our heads, as if to take a closer look at such rare intruders. This apparent lack of fear toward humans also allowed us to get a very close look at them. Their snowy white plumage a stark contrast to the black bill with a royal blue base.

But what was most fascinating about these birds is their remarkable breeding behavior. The fairy tern nests in trees, but rather than build a nest, it prefers to lay its single egg in the fork of a tree or in a niche on a horizontal branch. Needless to say, many of these precariously placed eggs are lost in poor weather. As we walked amongst the vegetation we observed several birds perched on branches, vigorously guarding their tiny egg. This unusual practice does not appear to diminish the terns numbers, as they are commonly found throughout the tropical oceans.

Although safe on Cook Islet, human disturbance and predation by feral animals such as cats, pigs and rats has become a serious threat to the mainland nesting species on Christmas Island. As a result, 11 of the 18 species are restricted to nesting on islets such as Cook, or in the landlocked central lagoon.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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