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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 19

From Issue No 19

Whiskered Tern, summer visitor


Whiskered Tern – Chlidonias hybrida (Afrikaans: Witbaard-meerswael)


The Whiskered Tern is a summer visitor from the far north (Palaearctic region). Whereas most terns occur only along our coast, the Whiskered and White-winged Terns can be seen on many inland vleis, pans or dams with reeds and other water plants, especially in the Western Cape, the Highveld and the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

It is a small to medium-sized tern of about 25 cm long. When they first arrive in about October the birds are white, but then soon come into breeding plumage, which is mainly charcoal grey with a black head. Their name is derived from "whiskers" at the base of the beak, which probably assist the bird in catching flying insects like dragonflies. On our farm Klawervlei at Faure on the Eerste River years ago they fed mainly on a small fish, Galaxia capensis (Mosquito Fish). These could be seen in huge shoals on the surface, so they were easy prey for the terns.

The nests are made of floating pads of vegetable matter lined with finer grasses. All the nests at Klawervlei were made from Wateruintjie (Cape Hawthorn) flower stems, which are spongy and float on the water. I was never quite sure how they got hold of those stems, because most of the stem was usually under water, sometimes as long as 35 cm or more, with just the flower sticking out on top. Finer grasses are then used on this float for the nest cup. The nests are sometime only a few metres apart, and in one season we ringed about 250 chicks from 83 nests.

Two to three eggs are laid, and after hatching the chicks stay on the nest for no more than six or seven days, when they will swim off happily. They often return to the nest at meal times. The parent birds would come flying in and without landing on the nest just drop the little fish down the wide open gapes of the chicks.

The Whiskered Terns were very popular subjects for bird photographers from near and far. They were completely tame birds, so hides were only used as a platform for the cameras. It was on Klawervlei that an organization known as the Underwater Club was started; to qualify you had to have dropped your photographic equipment into the water by accident. We ended up with seven members, two from Germany.

Our elected chairman was Professor Gerry Broekhuizen. He was in a hide in water of about four metres deep photographing terns and Great Crested Grebes. After a very successful day he put out the white flag, a sign that he was finished, and I then rowed out in the boat to fetch him. He fortunately made a habit of sealing all exposed films – movie, colour and black and white – in their waterproof cassettes. While handing his bag out to the boat he slipped and went down head first, equipment and all. It is a well known fact that the Dutch are amongst the world’s best sailors, but it is as well known that no Dutchman can swim. I only just managed to rescue Prof Broekhuizen and pull him onto the boat, but his equipment remained on the bottom. I rushed him home and we stuck him into a hot bath, then got him into some dry clothes. In the meantime our son, Johan, who was home from university for the weekend, dashed off back to the vlei. Then from the boat, using the metal poles of the hide as guides, he managed to lower himself to the bottom. On the second dive he got hold of the bag, rushed home and we stuck all the equipment under the tap and managed to get most of the mud out. Great was the relief of Prof Broekhuizen to find all the films totally undamaged. The 35 mm camera, a Leica, was cleaned up and fully restored by technicians at the University of Cape Town, where Prof Broekhuizen worked. Only the 16 mm movie camera was a write-off, but fortunately it was insured. Alltogether it was a most successful trip – the films were used worldwide.

A certain Mrs Koransky from Germany came to Klawervlei to photograph the terns, equipped with a brand new Leica with a 400 mm lens. She decided to wade in in her new chest waders and photograph at different nests, in water about a metre and a half deep. She was standing at the nest of a tern for about 15 minutes, she said, when she discovered she had sunk into the mud so deep she could not get her feet free. In the meantime she was sinking deeper and deeper. In desperation she dumped her equipment in the water, and at last managed to get her feet out of the waders and, nearly drowning, she waded out to the boat. When we went back she could not remember which nests she had been photographing, and the equipment is probably still lying there to this day.


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A Whiskered Tern at its nest with three eggs

A Whiskered Tern at its nest with three eggs

A pair of Whiskered Terns on their floating nest

A pair of birds on their floating nest

Whiskered Tern chicks remain at the nest for only 6 or 7 days after hatching

Whiskered Tern chicks

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