THE COVER PICTURE shows a Least Tern presenting a fish to its incubating mate in an austere nesting habitat. This remarkable photograph was taken on July 4, 1962, at the Big Salt Marsh in Stafford County, by the late John A. Knouse, to whose memory this issue of The Kansas School Naturalist is dedicated.
ABOUT THIS ISSUE
Published by The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia
Prepared and Issued by The Department of Biology, with the cooperation of the Division of Education
Editor: John Breukelman, Department of Biology
Editorial Committee: Ina M. Borman, Robert F. Clarke, Gilbert A. Leisman, David Parmelee, Carl F. Prophet, Dixon Smith
Online format by: Terri Weast
The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers and others interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as the supply lasts, except Vol. 5, No. 3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Department of Biology, Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas.
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John A. Knouse
John A. Knouse was born in Marysville, Kansas on June 25, 1938. Having spent his entire boyhood in his home state, he was graduated from the University of Kansas in 1961. He then came to the Kansas State Teachers College to do graduate work in biology and become certified to teach. Early on the morning of September 8, 1962, while driving from home to college, another car crashed into his - in his traffic lane. He died that afternoon without regaining consciousness.
To many of us, the name of Jack Knouse will always be associated with the study of natural history, especially of herons. Although his interests were broad, he became known as the "heron man" of Kansas. He was respected for his eager perceptiveness, imagination, and devotion to his work. Each morning, rainy or clear, and long before the sun was up, Jack was in his "nest" 60 feet up in a sycamore. Concealed in this bird blind, he watched, photographed, and recorded the activities of the Great Blue Heron. In his notebook, each bird was a number, but in his mind each was a distinctive personality. He knew the heron literature well, and it sometimes bothered him to learn that these birds did not always follow the behavior patterns described by other researchers.
With all his interest in herons, he had one greater interest-to help other people, especially boys. Never was a young person's problem too great for Jack to tackle, whether it be personal or in the field of science. And never did he fail a young person's faith in him. He took time from his own work to encourage and build interest in science. His work with the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts enabled him to reach young people and many of them received their first real encouragement in nature study through Jack's work. They loved him because he gave himself to help them become better young men and women.
With the untimely death of Jack Knouse, biology, especially nature study, lost an untiring worker, and many young people lost one of the best friends they ever had.
--H. A. Stephens
Terns are mostly light-bodied, long-winged, web-footed, pointed-billed, forked-tailed birds of marine, coastal, and inland waters of nearly cosmopolitan distribution. Although allied with gulls, which they resemble closely in many respects, terns can be readily identified from gulls and similar appearing birds by even the inexperienced person noting a few simple facts. Foremost among these perhaps is the characteristic flight and pretentious manner of feeding. Unlike many gulls (there are exceptions) that have a determined, rather labored flight, terns are buoyant and graceful, flying with steady, full wing-beats that cleave the air neatly, not often soaring. While feeding on the wing, they point their bills down towards the water, searching for small fish, crustaceans, or other small animals. When the prey is spotted, at times from twenty or more feet away, the birds plunge and enter the water head first with a great splash. Almost immediately they reappear and continue flying. If the prey be a fish, it is often carried crossways in the bill and can be seen from afar.
Some terns habitually pick food from the surface of the water, but these are exceptional. Even more so are those terns that feed while swimming, after the fashion of gulls. Some terns occasionally feed over dry land, but they, too, quite characteristically fly with bill pointed down, suddenly swooping and darting here and there in catching insects.
Terns may be fairly small, only eight inches or so long. The medium-sized ones attain a length of 16 inches while a few, virtually giants among terns, may be nearly two feet long and appear larger than medium-sized gulls. All three sizes may be seen in Kansas.
The usual color pattern of terns is gull-like, i.e., the underparts are white and the back and folded wings (mantle) are gray. Adults often have a black cap (crested in some species) during the breeding season. The cap should not be confused with the more extensive black hood of certain gulls in breeding plumage.
Other terns may be strikingly different; those of the genus Chlidonias, the so-called Black Terns, are mostly black in the adult breeding plumage. Others of the genus Larosterna, the Inca Tern, may be mostly gray below as well as above, while those of the genus Gygis, or Fairy Tern, may be pure white of feather. The Noddy Tern (Anous) is mostly brown with a .grayish crown. The color patterns likely to be seen in Kansas are the common type - gray above and white below - and the black type.
Color of other parts, notably the bill, legs, and feet vary greatly from dark or blackish to bright yellow, orange or red. These colors are convenient aids in identifying species but you must remember that the colors may change in the individual from season to season, often being brightest during breeding. Note also that the color of bills, legs, and feet of museum specimens will fade to uninteresting neutral colors within a few days. This is the reason why taxidermists attempt to restore with paint the natural colors of those specimens that are mounted for public display.
The tail of terns is also important from the standpoint of field identification. Some terns have deeply forked tails, others have shallow forks. Broken tails of deeply forked types are confusing, but usually only one of the long feathers is broken in such individuals. Remember that forked tails of any kind are exceedingly rare in gulls that may be seen in Kansas. Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini), an arctic species with a slightly forked tail, occasionally drifts inland over the United States. Indeed, we have in our bird collection at Kansas State Teachers College such a specimen taken a few years ago at Cheyenne Bottoms in central Kansas.
Terns are not only graceful fliers, but compete favorably with the truly great migrants of the bird world. Perhaps the most famous long-distance flier of all is the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea), which nests as far north as land extends to the very edge of the polar sea. The wintering grounds are the sub-antarctic and antarctic waters of the southern oceans. These birds fly thousands of miles each year, and it has often been stated that they probably enjoy more hours of daylight than any other bird or animal. I studied a small colony of Arctic Terns at 80° North in the Canadian Arctic. The most dramatic point of the entire breeding season was the sudden departure of these birds from the nesting spots in late August and early September. One young tern departed on its long southward migration less than a week after it started flying for the first time!
Terns are also famous for their gregarious nesting habits. Some of their colonies, or terneries as they are called, may contain only a few scattered pairs but others may have thousands of pairs of the same species or of several species of terns or other birds. The nesting ground, often an island or gravel bar, may be so crowded that the nests may be spaced only a few feet apart. This is sufficient for the pairs maintain and protect their tiny areas or "territories" with vigor. They will viciously attack not only members of their kind but all trespassers that are a threat to their eggs or young. They will even attack humans with such ferocity that many a sore scalp has resulted.
There is real advantage in studying large numbers of a given species, and since the terns are gregarious, many biological studies have been conducted on them. This is especially true of the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), which occurs abundantly in both new and old worlds. Tens of thousands of these birds have been banded, by placing a numbered metal band on the leg of an individual bird. The bands used in the United States and Canada are issued bv the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to qualified persons, called bird banders, who possess valid banding permits. After a bird is banded (and the number recorded), it is released with the hope that it will be recovered when and wherever it is caught alive again or dies. The finder of such a bird should send the band number to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D. C. Most birds that are banded are not recovered. The highest percentage of returns is found among the waterfowl, since many of them are recovered by hunters. But there have also been outstanding returns from banded terns. Arctic Terns banded in Labrador and Greenland, for example, were later recovered in Europe and Africa respectively.
Typical Cheyenne Bottoms nesting habitat where Robert Zuvanich conducted research on Forster's and Black terns; photographed July 4, 1962, by Ted F. Andrews.
Through banding we learn not only about the distribution and migration routes of birds, but also of their life-span, dispersion of young, mortality, and breeding habits. As a result of banding, the Common Tern is now known to have a life-span as long as 25 years, and the Arctic Tern 27 years.
The nest of a tern is often an unlined scrape in sand or gravel. Some individuals lay on bare ground without building a nest of any sort, Others, especially those inhabiting marshy places, may build a substantial structure of vegetation afloat on the water or on something more solid such as a muskrat house, One species is known to lay its eggs below ground in a hole or crevice, but perhaps the most unusual site is the bare branch of a bush or tree, It is the above-mentioned Fairy Tern of the tropical oceanic islands that incubates its single egg in a mere depression of a small branch above ground!
The number of eggs laid in a tern's nest is one, two, three, and rarely four. Some species regularly lay only one egg, others from one to three. Both sexes may share in the incubation, which lasts from three to four weeks. The downy chicks, also cared for by both parents, are precocious and leave the nest within a day or two of hatching, running along the sand or swimming, occasionally returning to the nest. During the next several weeks they rapidly acquire dense body plumage and flight feathers. This is called the "fledging" period. When the young birds are capable of prolonged flight, they are said to be fledged. Of the five species of terns known to occur in Kansas, the Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) is perhaps the one most likely to be seen by the casual observer. Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) and the Least Tern (Sterna albifrons) are also fairly common, though restricted in their movements or habitat. These three species are known to nest within the State. Non-breeders include the much rarer Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) and Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). A more detailed description of these Kansas terns follows, but we strongly urge the serious-minded student to consult additional references. An excellent pocket-sized book of birds, including terns, of southwestern United States, and also Kansas, is Roger Tory Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas," published by the Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1960.
Although Forster's Terns have been reported from Canada to the coastal waters off Brazil, they are not the great world travelers as are other species of the family. They breed from southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to California, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin; they breed, also, at several places on the coast from Maryland and Virginia to Mexico. For the past few years we have had reason to believe that they also nest in central Kansas, for we quite frequently saw adults during the breeding time at Cheyenne Bottoms. Such observations are not valid breeding records, but the problem was finally resolved when one of our graduate students, Robert Zuvanich, did in fact locate several nests at Cheyenne Bottoms this past summer. Heretofore these terns were not know to nest anywhere in Kansas. They have been seen in the state from April to early November but there is little evidence that they winter here. The species in known to winter from California and Virginia south through the Gulf of Mexico and down into Central America.
Forster's Terns are about 15 inches long and this includes the deeply-forked grayish tail. The mantle is also gray, the upper surface of the primaries or outer flight feathers being silver gray, somewhat edged with dusky. The underparts are white. The black cap, conspicuous in breeding adults, is replaced in fall and winter feather by a black spot on each side of the head, sometimes called "ear spots." The bill during breeding is orange-red with a dark tip, but during fall and winter the entire bill turns dark. The legs and feet, also bright
orange-red during breeding, become dull in autumn.
In Kansas, Forster's Tern may be seen flying along any shore, Singly, paired, or in small flocks of a few to upwards of a dozen birds, occasionally more. Or, one or more of them may be resting on the shore, mud or gravel bar, often among other shore birds. According to our experience, a good place to find them is Cheyenne Bottoms, where they can often, but not invariably, be seen flying low over the water-filled ditches adjacent to the dyke roads. It was about a thousand yards out from one of these dykes in Pool 2 where Zuvanich found the nesting birds. Since he will publish a report in the Bulletin of the Kansas Ornithological Society, it will suffice to mention but a few facts concerning his findings.
Some twenty nests were observed from June 1 through July 5. These were floating masses of vegetation on water one to two feet deep and scattered over a marshy area estimated to be 700 by 1500 yards. The number of eggs in each nest was in most cases three but in a few nests it was two. Since some of the eggs hatched as early as June 15, there can be no doubt that egg-laying at some nests took place in May. One nest was destroyed by a storm and several others presumably by predators. But of all the eggs laid, at least 36 were known to have hatched. In banding the chicks, Zuvanich was able to observe individuals as they developed. Before terminating his study he found 17-day-old chicks still within the nesting area. The chicks were not fledged but there is every reason to believe that they did and that the species was successful in its breeding at Cheyenne Bottoms in 1962. The birds will probably return to nest there again if the habitat remains suitable.
The Common Tern breeds widely across Europe and Asia, wintering southward to Africa and New Guinea. It also breeds extensively in the Western Hemisphere, south of tree-line across Canada and northern United States, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and in parts of the West Indies. It may be seen as far south as Argentina and the Falkland Islands in winter. The scarcity of sight observations and dearth of museum specimens indicate that in Kansas it is only a rare spring and fall transient.
One problem concerning this apparently rare tern in Kansas is its striking resemblance in size, shape, coloring, and habits to Forster's Tern. Many Common Terns have darker outer flight feathers (primaries) and a whiter tail, but these characteristics are not easily noted by the inexperienced eye. Even worse, some individual birds lack even these minor differences; then the experts on bird identification have difficulty in distinguishing the two species, not only in the field but also in the hand. The birds in winter feather are not quite so troublesome. You will recall that the black cap of Forster's Tern is replaced by "ear spots" on each side of the head. Common Terns do not have these spots but rather a dark patch that extends around back of the head. The two species differ also in their calls, but these can be learned and distinguished only through experience.
Your first thought when seeing a tern of this type in Kansas should be Forster's, which it likely is. Keep in mind, however, the possibility of it being a Common Tern, which it may well be. If you think you really have a Common Tern visiting your favorite pond or State Park, by all means consult Peterson's Field Guide, and then get in touch with the Department of Biology at Kansas State Teachers College.
Mounted specimen of Least Tern; note moderately larked tail. light lorehead in front of the black cap. dark outer primaries of wing. and bi-colored bill.
Shallow scrape and eggs of Least Tern be·side a bone; dime placed near scrape to in· dicate size of eggs; photographed by Gary Jones at Great Salt Marsh, July 5, 1962.
The Least Tern is a widely distributed bird. In the Old World it is found across Europe and Asia to Japan and the Philippines, and southward into Africa, East Indies, Melanesia, and Australia. In the New World it occurs from California, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Massachusetts south through Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies to Peru and Brazil. It may be, however, quite local or spotty in its distribution; for example, in the United States it is confined mostly to the coasts, except that it is also fairly common inland at certain lakes and especially along the great river systems, notably the Colorado, Red, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers. In Kansas, interestingly enough, it is a common nesting bird of the so-called salt flats - a sort of inland marine habitat and remnant of an ancient sea. There are several of these salt flats in Kansas; perhaps the best known is the Big Salt Marsh in Stafford County. It was here that one of our graduate students, Gary Jones, formerly of the Hoisington public school system, recently studied the breeding habits of the Least Tern along with the Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). These two species primarily inhabit marine beaches but show remarkable adaptation to river bottoms and salt flats that may be far inland.
Before Jones' study, not much was known about the Least Tern in Kansas. Apparently even as late as 1956 there was only one authentic nesting record for the state, that by Otto Tiemeier, who reported five nests with two eggs each, near the Arkansas River in Hamilton County, July I, 1936. Since then breeding records for Meade and Stafford counties have come to light.
Apparently the species in Kansas is an uncommon transient, as well as a local summer resident. It has been stated to occur in northeast Kansas from May 14 to August 27. Our own records do not extend these dates, although I would expect a revision once the facts are better known. Where our Kansas Least Terns winter is not known. In fact, the winter range of the entire interior race or population is not definitely known, according to the latest A.O.U. Check-List of North American Birds. Some of these birds are known to migrate along the Gulf Coast, and they probably winter south of the United States. Banding of Kansas birds might well shed light on this intriguing problem. In the meantime, we should be aware of these birds and report their occurrences.
Least Terns are small, as their name implies. Being only 8-10 inches long, they are known as the "Little Tern" in the British Isles. Size alone, however, can be misleading at a distance, especially of flying birds; so one must note other characters, such as the yellow bill (tip black) and feet in summer color. The adult is generally white with a grayish mantle, black cap and white forehead. The bill becomes darker in the fall, the feet less so. Immature or first-winter birds also have dark bills, and, in addition, a dark patch extending from eye to back of head, the top of the head being much lighter than that of adults. They also retain juvenile tail and flight feathers (primaries and secondaries) of the wing, and the lesser feathers along the front edge of the wing are darker. The tails of both adult and immature are forked, but not deeply so.
To be sure, Least Terns can be confused with the larger Forster's and Common terns, both of which have comparably deeply forked tails. One is less apt to confuse them with immature Black Terns. But the more one studies and observes terns the easier the task becomes. For example, one soon notes that the Least Terns fly with faster wing beats. They have a peculiar call, sometimes described as an oft-repeated kit or kik-kik or kitti. The best descriptions are, however, no substitute for personal experience.
Gary Jones found the Least Terns of the Salt Marsh nesting on open flat ground with scant vegetation. The nest, hardly more than a slight depression in salty sand, was usually near a break in the ground, such as a foot print or tire mark, or close to a stick, bone, or grass clump. Each of the 74 nests examined contained one, two, or three eggs in about equal proportions. Unfortunately, most of these eggs were destroyed by predators of various kinds, and nesting success in this area in 1962 was low. But this is the way of life. Some breeding areas produce bumper crops of young, others experience catastrophies. Jones will publish a detailed report on these terns at a later date.
A truly magnificent tern of the world is the far-ranging Caspian Tern. It is huge, approaching two feet in length, and sports a large red bill conspicuous at great distances. These characters alone distinguish it from all other Kansas terns and gulls. Being mostly white below, it has the usual gray upper-parts excepting the white and moderately forked tail, and the black cap, which is lighter and more or less streaked in winter. It also has dark primaries (outer wing feathers).
Caspian Terns breed colonially on sandy or gravel islands off the coast or inland at large bodies of water. It would appear that Kansas does not have suitable breeding spots, and we have not thought of them nesting anywhere within the State. They are exciting birds to see. I saw them first in Kansas at the Ross Natural History Reservation, about 14 miles northwest of Emporia, on May 20, 1961. There were two circling together low over a pond. Then they flew north and were gone. At Cheyenne Bottoms, during June 2 and 3 of the same vear, Richard Schmidt and I saw a single bird flying upwind along one of the dyke canals. Schmidt, our taxidermist, collected it for a specimen-the second of its kind for Kansas. On September 11, I saw another at Cheyenne Bottoms. It stood silently but conspicuously among many Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) most of one afternoon, occasionally flying off with the gulls and returning with them. It also swam about with the gulls, dipping its head while feeding, in this respect behaving quite unlike a tern. The species is known to have this gull-like behavior. A good many observers have seen these birds, usually one or two at a time, in Kansas. Your chances of seeing one also are quite good if you watch for the big red bill
among the resting flocks. The bill is not so easily seen when the bird is flying.
Beyond Kansas you may see a Caspian Tern almost anywhere for the species ranges from south of tree-line in Canada to the Carribbean and from Europe and Asia to Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) is another large but slimmer tern that resembles the Caspian Tern rather closely. The former is, however, a coastal species that has been reported rarely inland and not at all in Kansas. It differs from the Caspian Tern noticeably in its deeply forked tail, light forehead, and crest of feathers that often extends back beyond the head. Since terns are great fliers, we mention this species only as a potential visitor to Kansas. It, too, would be an exciting bird to see, one that would add a new bird to the State list.
The Black Tern is one of the few members of the family with a dark breeding plumage. The head and underparts are black, the back and wings gray, and the undertail feathers (coverts) white. The plumage may
Top: Black Tern alighting at nest. The nests of these terns were platforms of broken rushes afloat among living rushes.
Middle: Nest and eggs of Black Tern: this and the top picture were photographed by the author. July 16. 1961. at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Bottom: Black Tern nest. egg. and downy young; photographed at Cheyenne Bottoms. July 4, 1962, by Ted F. Andrews.
be more or less sprinkled with whitish or grayish feathers, particularly about the head and neck. Birds of this plumage are not likely to be confused with any other Kansas bird.
The black plumage is mostly replaced with white or grayish feathers starting about mid-summer. During the molt the birds are piebald, showing patches of dark and white in body plumage and presenting a puzzling appearance. In autumn the birds appear light below. The head is also light then, except for a few dark markings. This winter plumage is similar to that of the immature, which is light below in spring and summer when the adults are dark. These terns in any plumage, however, need not be mistaken for other Kansas terns of somewhat similar size. The tail of the Black Tern is moderately forked, not deeply forked as in Forster's and Common terns. The Least Tern lacks the even-colored gray wings and has a lighter tail.
Black Terns breed over much of Europe and western Asia, wintering south in Africa to the Belgian Congo, Angola, and Tanganvika. They also breed across southern Canada to California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York, wintering from Panama to Chile, on the Pacific, and from Panama to Surinam on the Atlantic.
Black Terns were known to occur as spring and fall transients in Kansas, but it was for many years a moot question whether the few summer birds that were occasionally seen actually bred within the State. There appeared to be much suitable nesting habitat in Kansas; it was therefore reasonable to look for nests. especially since the species reportedly bred in states adjacent to us. The problem was finally resolved when several of us from the Kansas State Teachers College discovered the first known nesting at Cheyenne Bottoms in June of 1961. The terns had colonized in scattered groups spread out over manv acres of marsh. The nests we;e platforms of broken rushes afloat on the water among standing clumps of rushes. Of the dozen or so nests found, each had three eggs. These the terns defended Viciously. They attacked from behind, striking hard with their bills. Such a defense is effective against predators but not against severe hail storms. One such storm virtually destroyed all the nests, eggs, and young in 1961. But despite the lack of nesting success that year the terns returned in even greater numbers in 1962, and bred successfully. Robert Zuvanich made a study of them, along with his work on Forster's Tern. Black Terns can be seen easily by anyone driving along the dyke roads at Cheyenne Bottoms from May through September.
IF YOU HAVE A SPECIAL interest in birds, you may wish to join the Kansas Ornithological Society and be one of business people, lawyers, doctors, housewives, teachers, farmers, students, and other who have little in common except a love of nature, especially birds. The secretary is Amelia Betts, Baldwin, Kansas, who will be glad to send you a sample copy of the Bulletin and give you information about the Society. Regular dues are $2.00 a year; student membership, $1.00.
SOME USEFUL REFERENCES
Austin, O. L., Jr., and Arthur Singer. 1961. Birds of the World. Golden Press, Inc., N. Y.
Carson, L. B. Introduction to Our Bird Friends. 1957. 50¢. Contains information about 50 species frequently seen In Kansas; write to Bird Book Department KF, Capper Publications, 8th and Jackson, Topeka, Kansas.
Johnston, R. F. 1960. Directory to the Bird-Life of Kansas, Univ. of Kan. Mus. Nat. Hist. Mis. Pub., No. 23, 169.
Write Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, for copies.
Parmelee, D. F. 1961. A Nesting Colony of Black Terns in Kansas, Kan. Ornith. Soc. Bull., Vol. 12, No.4, 25-27.
Tordoff, Harrison B., 1956. Checklist of the Birds of Kansas. Univ. of Kan. Pub. Mus. Nat. Hist., Vol. 8, No.5, 307-359. Write Museum of Natural History for copies.
Peterson, Roger Tory. 1949. How to Know the Birds (Paperback, Signet KD 347) 50c.
Zim, Herbert S. and Ira Gabrielson. 1949. Birds (A Golden Nature Guide) , paper $1.00; cloth $1.50.
IT IS NOT TOO EARLY to plan to attend the 1963 Workshop in Conservation, which will be a part of the 1963 Summer Session of the Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, during June and July.
As in the past several years, the Workshop will cover water, soil, grassland, and wildlife conservation, with emphasis throughout on conservation teaching. Such topics as geography and climate of Kansas, water resources, soil erosion problems and control, grass as a resource, bird banding, wildflowers, conservation clubs, and conservation teaching in various grades will be discussed. There will be lectures, demonstrations, discussion groups, films, slides, field trips, projects, and individual and group reports. You may enroll for undergraduate or graduate credit.
Exact dates, fees, and other details will appear in later issues of The Kansas School Naturalist. For further information write the director, Mr. Thomas A. Eddy, Department of Biology, KSTC, Emporia.
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