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RARE: world’s greatest traveler found in York County

On the final day of May 2015, I decided to do a little morning birding in eastern portions of the Rainwater Basin before picking up some mulch I needed to finish yet another yard project.  The weather was too nice not to get out for a while even though the frenzy and possibility of spring migration had waned.  The outing was an opportunity to search for leftover migrant shorebirds and also lingering waterbirds.  The latter is of interest because some of these birds may be sticking around to breed at wetlands with good water levels.  I visited most wetlands in western Seward and York Counties without finding much of note. By early afternoon I was at my final stop, Marsh Duck Wildlife Management Area in York County.  I had plenty of time to check the wetland for birds, head back to Lincoln and get to that mulch.  In the midst of mentally estimating how many bags of mulch I needed, I think twelve more would get the job done, my attention was drawn to a Sterna tern flying around the far end of the wetland.

Sterna is a genus of medium-sized pale terns and include species such as Forster’s and Common Tern, both of which regularly occur in Nebraska.  Rainwater Basin wetlands are not the best places to find either species.  Forster’s Terns are uncommon spring and fall migrants and there are only a handful of records of Common Tern for the Rainwater Basin.  Thus, my initial thought was this lone bird could be something halfway interesting.  After getting my spotting scope on the bird, it quickly became apparent this may be something much more than halfway interesting.  Instead, it appeared to be something exceptional, an Arctic Tern.  Identifying Sterna terns, particularly out-of-range ones, can be tricky, so this was not a slam-dunk identification.  After stalking, scrutinizing and photographing the suspect for over two hours, the bird in question was indeed an Arctic Tern.  Below are several photos I captured.

A view of what I first saw at Marsh Duck WMA, a medium-sized white tern flying over the wetland. This may be the first time in history an Arctic Tern and a tractor/corn-planter were captured in the same frame.
A view of what I first saw at Marsh Duck WMA, a medium-sized white tern flying over the wetland. This may be the first time in human history an Arctic Tern and a tractor/corn-planter has been captured in the same frame.
Arctic Tern
My best photo of the bird. The grey belly, relatively small blood red bill (without a black tip), long tail, pale upperwing and pale underside of the wing with a distinct narrow black trailing edge on the primaries distinguishes Arctic Tern from other similar species.
Another view.
Another view.
Another view showing the underside of the bird.
Another view showing the underside of the bird.
The Arctic Tern was behaving more like a Black Tern, flying very buoyantly over the water and regularly dipping its bill in the water.
The Arctic Tern was behaving more like a Black Tern, flying very buoyantly over the water and regularly dipping its bill in the water.

Arctic Terns are famous for being the world’s greatest traveler.  Their incredible annual migration, which covers 25,000+ miles, takes them from the Antarctic to the Arctic and then back again (see more about this here here and here).  Most Arctic Terns migrate over open ocean, but a few occur inland annually.  One was reported in Colorado last week.  Nebraska claims five Arctic Tern records, two from late spring (both from Lake McConaughy) and three during fall.  This will be the sixth record pending acceptance of the Nebraska Ornithologists Union Records Committee.

Arctic Tern eluded me in Nebraska up until yesterday, thus it was an addition to my state list.  I figured I would eventually see or find one, but never in my wildest imagination had I considered it a possibility in the Rainwater Basin.  Most records of Arctic Tern from the Interior, as well as all previous records from Nebraska, are from large lakes or reservoirs (technically, one of Nebraska’s records was from the Gavin’s Point Dam tailrace).  I figured Lake McConaughy or possibly Branched Oak Lake would be the place I would see one.  If I had pondered the possibility of an Arctic Tern in the Rainwater Basin, I would have deduced large wetlands would be the likely location.  The wetland at Marsh Duck WMA is not large, approximately only 60-80 acres total.  Even so, Arctic Tern is the 359th species to be observed in the Rainwater Basin.   Obviously the relatively small water area the bird was using was favorable for getting good looks and photos.  On  a large water body, the bird may have kept its distance from the shore.

Enjoying this surprise consumed my afternoon.  I never got to that mulch and I could not be any happier.

Remember, you never know what you’ll find once you start looking.

Good birding!

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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