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Mountain Home Magazine

Wrong Terns and Sunless Skies

“Pow, right between the eyes

Oh how nature loves her little surprises”

~ from A Life of Illusion, by Joe Walsh 

Sometimes the natural world will flex a muscle, yawn or stretch or sigh, maybe even stamp a foot in a bit of pique, and we humans are left with our mouths hanging open, wondering how and why something like that could have happened.

Take, for instance, the tern that made the wrong turn. At least we assume it was a wrong turn. Maybe it was the right one. How would we know for sure either way? The tale of the tern, a rare white-winged tern, began, as local Tiadaghton Audubon Society members Rich Hanlon and Kathy Riley recount, on the morning of August 10 when Rich, faced with a number of avian-related choices, opted to take his camera and binos to Nessmuk Lake for a bit of bird watching. “Serious birders all have a life list of birds they’ve seen,” says Kathy, and the places they’re seen don’t seem to matter as much as the fact that they’re seen. “People keep lists of the birds they’ve seen in WalMart.”

So there was Rich, heading toward the lake’s south shore, hoping perhaps to add to his life list, when “I stopped abruptly forty yards short of the water’s edge at the sight of a dark colored tern perched on one of the pylons. The bird was facing me head-on, so I could see that the head and breast were black with some white spotting on the forehead.” He thought at first he was seeing a migrating black tern, which would have been a rarity, so he called on some birding friends—John Corcoran and Kathy—and the three of them, with the help of a spotting scope and a field guide that conveniently showed a picture of a white-winged tern next to the black tern, subsequently made the correct identification. That visitor, which Rich fondly describes as having “its tail looking like it was dipped in white paint, white upper wings, and under wings black to the shoulder with white primary and secondary feathers,” was a white-winged tern.

In birder terms, its presence here, says Kathy, was “a big beaky deal.” A Eurasian bird, no part of Pennsylvania or even the shores of North America are on its known travel itinerary. This sighting was, in fact, the only documented one in this country so far this year, and the first documented sighting in Pennsylvania ever.

By that afternoon crowds were forming at the lakeshore—locals at first but ultimately an estimated 300-plus bird enthusiasts from several states came to pay homage. By 5 p.m. that first evening, Rich recalls, the team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had arrived. They told him, he says, that one reason the tern may have decided to hang out at Nessmuk was because of the excellent habitat.

“In Europe white-winged terns are primarily found in healthy shallow marsh habitats that have good perches close to the water’s surface. That is also a description of what we currently see at Nessmuk Lake.” He adds that the presence of this rare visitor had a positive economic impact on local restaurants and hotels, as all those birders needed places to eat and sleep. “It pays to nurture healthy ecosystems, and this is something we can all participate in together, for the sake of the birds and our local economy.”

The white-winged tern left as inexplicably as it arrived after about four days. Rich says he especially enjoyed watching the bird at twilight when “it would go into a feeding frenzy, making pass after pass over the shallow marsh at the south end of Nessmuk in company with chimney swifts and cedar waxwings.” There were moments, he says, when the white-winged tern seemed to be “moving in unison with the assimilate with their flock.”

No profound analogies there.

Excitement over the white-winged tern had barely abated when The Path of Totality took center stage in the ongoing show that is the natural world. In Tioga County the day of the total solar eclipse was off-and-on cloudy; by early afternoon, every time it would get a bit darker, I’d drop what I was doing and scurry outside, squinting carefully skyward and observing, heavy sigh, just a cloud passing over the sun. I knew we were not in the coveted Path, but my hopes of seeing any part at all of the eclipse seemed increasingly, no pun intended, dim.

Fortune smiled, though, and my work that day ultimately took me to the home of some folks who were better prepared than I to watch the marvel of the moon hiding the sun. They had a pair of eclipse glasses, which was an extremely cool way to see what was happening in the sky, and a set-up out in their driveway that included a tri-pod, binoculars, and a piece of white paper on which the shadow of the moon could be seen as it was passing over the sun. We stood outside and, with the proper degree of awe, watched and talked about the rarity we were witnessing. We couldn’t help but wonder what the ancient peoples might have thought and felt when their sun was, however briefly, blotted out. We couldn’t help but just say “wow.”

Nature does love her little surprises. Sometimes they have names—Agnes or Harvey, Katrina or Irma, or simply The Polar Vortex. Sometimes they come with feathers or fur. Sometimes they darken our world, then dazzle us by returning the light. Sometimes, as Rich Hanlon says, they just leave us “filled with gratitude to have had such an amazing experience.” 

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