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Aerobics of the Arctic Tern

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I called a friend of mine this morning. He said he was sitting on a bench looking at a pair of beautiful Long-tailed ducks on the pond at Seltjarnarnes peninsula. He said they looked wonderful.

My friend was very much in spring spirit and said he was happy to be retired and to be able to go about his own business enjoying nature at its peak during spring. “And do you know what,” he said. “These birds are usually very shy and I have seldom seen them so close by. I’m very happy,” he concluded.

The pond at Seltjarnarnes is a gem to have within easy reach of the city. It is still unspoilt and although there is a golf course close by and considerable traffic of pedestrians and cars birds still seek refugee on the pond.

A pair of Icelandic swans has nested there with good results for many years, usually bringing up four to five chicks every summer. In spring the pond comes alive with migratory birds many of which make a stopover on their way to their usual nestling grounds. Some birds lay there eggs in the immediate area, so the pond is rich with birdlife throughout the whole year.

The people of Seltjarnarnes should be proud of their pond and the birds it attracts and fight with teeth and claws to protect it. The pond in Reykjavík and the adjoining wetland has nearly been ruined with the birdlife disappearing to a large extent.

And talking about summer, it has finally arrived in Iceland. It is often said about us Icelanders that we are closer to nature than many people. And we probably are. We measure many things by the course of nature. For instance, spring in Iceland has not arrived until the Golden Plover arrives to chase the snow away, as is stated in the poem by Páll Ólafsson (1827-1905).

Summer for me has not arrived until the Arctic Tern, that wonderful creature of superb aerobatics has arrived. Last Sunday I was working in my garden, tidying up around the daffodils and preparing my soil for herbs and salad when I heard some harsh shrieking above me and there they were, high up in the air claiming their territory once again as they have done for hundreds of years.

The Arctic Tern, or kría as it is called in Icelandic is definitely the bird of summer. When pronounced in Icelandic kría mimics the shriek of the bird, a harsh piercing sound. It usually arrives on the tip of east Iceland on May 1. Only a few birds can be seen so early. They are the fastest flyers sent ahead to check out the circumstances. Then they arrive in flocks, tens of thousands.

The island of Vigur in the West fjords where I spent my summers of youth has a large colony of Arctic Terns. They have always been welcome there as they protect the large Eider duck colony from greedy gulls, Ravens and Gyrfalcons.

For many summers I had a brilliant opportunity to study the habits of these light-winged and courageous little birds. They live in a very organized society, probably mating for life.

Over the nesting colony hover Tern guards who make sounds of warning if they spot something suspicious. And then the whole colony flies out to meet the enemy who is relentlessly chased away.

The Terns even have regular flying rehearsals for this purpose. This little bird has a very sharp red beak and equally red webbed feet. It is a restless bird that spends most of its time in the air, hence the Icelandic saying, “To sit like a Tern on a stone,” which is used for restless people who do not find peace in their bones to sit down properly.

When I was little the most exciting thing I did was to go out into the Tern colony with my cousins to collect Tern eggs. Mind you, it did them no harm because this bird has the ability to lay more eggs right away.

Due to the fickle habitat they live in they have evolved a defense mechanism that allows them to nest up to three times if their eggs are spoiled. Tern eggs are delicious and they are so small you can eat up to ten at a time.

Few weeks later we were sent out to spot the small chicks in the hayfields before they were mowed. We ran in front of the tractor and carried the feeble little ones out of harms way. This was my uncle’s idea, who could not stand any cruelty to animals and always thought about nature first.

Some people have phobia for Terns. I don’t know what that is called, I propose “Ternaphobia.” When you walk into a colony of Terns they take dives at your head and shriek very loudly. They are extremely protective of their eggs and chicks.

The Terns become insanely vicious when their chicks are about to break the eggshells. Then they will sting at you with their sharp beaks and if they hit you spot on they can cause your head to bleed.

It is enough to wave your hand above your head for protection against these vicious attackers but I know of people who fear Tern attacks so much they will crawl instead of walking and cry.

The parents feed their chicks with sand eels and small fish which they catch with great effort out at sea. The chicks usually hide in the grass until they have rehearsed their flying skills.

When the Tern chicks’ wings are strong enough the whole colony moves to one spot on the island where they relentlessly practice flying with their young ones. And then one day in late August they all go on the long journey at the same time.

One morning you can’t hear a sound, everything goes quiet. Then they have sensed the right autumn wind which will ease their winging all the way to the Antarctica where they reside in winter.

It is surely a wonderful bird.

BB – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.