Searching for a Fairy (Tern)


O’ahu Island and Waikiki Beach in particular are not WC’s and Mrs. WC’s favorite places in the Hawai’ian Islands. Maybe even least favorite. If you want a big city in the tropics there are lots of birdier places.

But O’ahu is the only birder-accessible place on the planet to see Fairy Terns, a/k/a White Terns. Sure, they nest in large numbers on Midway Island, but unless you volunteer for three months you can’t go there. For whatever reason, Fairy Terns have decided they like nesting in downtown Honolulu, especially at the Iolani Palace and the Kapiolani City Park between the north end of Waikiki and Diamond Head.

It’s a challenge to find them. O’ahu is plagued with Rock Pigeons (introduced) as well as Spotted Doves (ditto) and Zebra Dovers (also ditto). But for unknown reasons, many of Honolulu’s Rock Pigeons are white, the same color as Fairy Terns.

Rock Pigeon doing its best Fairy Tern imitation, O'ahu, Hawai'ian Islands

Rock Pigeon doing its best Fairy Tern imitation, O’ahu, Hawai’ian Islands

Now Fairy Terns have a longish black bill, and the body shape is quite different, but when you are looking for medium-sized white birds in trees, the difference isn’t always immediately obvious. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of pigeons, many of them pure white. It’s a bugger.

The first day, walking the length of Kapiolani Park and back, we dipped on the bird. “Dipped” is birder-speak for completely missing the target species. In late afternoon, sitting on our lanai at the Park Shore Hotel – hey, it’s very convenient to Kaiolani Park and offers a kind of seedy 1950s vibe – we saw three in the distance, dramatic white birds against the dark gray rain clouds and the rainy slopes of Diamond Head. Frustrating, but encouraging.

Fairy Tern in the distance against Diamond Ha, O'ahu, Hawai'ian Islands

Fairy Tern in the distance against Diamond Head, O’ahu, Hawai’ian Islands

So the next morning, armed with a bit of internet research, we tried again. It took an hour or more, but eventually we saw a tern flying into the area of a parking garage for a condominium complex between the road and the beach. After prowling around a bit, Mrs. WC spotted the bird.

White Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O'ahu, Hawai'ian Islands

Fairy Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O’ahu, Hawai’ian Islands

Maneuvering around various levels of the car garage and some very expensive automobiles – for a wonder, we weren’t accosted by security – we were able to find a slightly better view.

White Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O'ahu, Hawai'ian Islands

White Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O’ahu, Hawai’ian Islands

White Terns don’t build a nest. They lay and incubate their eggs directly on a branch. The chicks are born with talons on their webbed feet to help them grip the branch. This bird was clever enough to find a tree sheltered from the 25-35 mph trade winds by the buildings and dense enough branches to discourage the feral cats that infest the park.

White Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O'ahu, Hawai'ian Islands

White Tern on an egg, Kapiolani Park, O’ahu, Hawai’ian Islands

We left her there, incubating her egg, a small testament to the incredible adaptability of nature and the cleverness of birds. That adaptability is severely limited; more than half of O’ahu’s native birds species have gone extinct. But it is nonetheless incredible.

Coda: We saw ten to fifteen more Fairy Terns around Honolulu after this, including two on the drive to the airport. It just goes to show.

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