Least Tern Courtship: How I Got the Shot

Photo of two birds on a beach. One is standing on the back of the other and offering a fish to the one on the bottom. Least Tern Courtship © Rajan Desai
Least Tern Courtship © Rajan Desai

By Rajan Desai

Editor’s note: Massachusetts-based photographer Rajan Desai is a frequent contributor to the NANPA Facebook Group but it’s not often he gets the kind of reaction he saw after posting “Least Tern Courtship.” That photo reached more than 3,500 people, generated 563 engagements, and inspired 44 comments, including “Beautiful photo. It’s like an image of ballet. I can hear the music in my head.” and “Fabulous capture!! I like your explanation of the courtship rituals also. So well done!” His detailed caption explained the birds’ behavior, but what else made the photo so compelling? We asked Desai to tell us about how he got the shot.

Least tern courtship

I had the privilege of observing this beautiful courtship between two least terns. The courtship behavior in animals, especially birds, is always amusing to me. Depending on the species, the male uses different methods, such as song, feather display, food offerings, and more to attract the female’s attention. Mating happens only when the female gives permission. 

In Massachusetts, least terns start to arrive by early May. By mid-May, shores are buzzing with least terns flying around, courting, finding their mate, and selecting nesting sites. As part of the courtship, the male brings in a fish as a gift for the female. If she is impressed, she shows her interest. I have seen many a male strutting around the female with the fish in his beak. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

This courtship ritual can go on for many minutes. The male continues to shake his head, flash the fish in the sun, and try to get closer to the female. Other interested male terns may bomb the courting pair, resulting in a squabble between the two males. The courtship resumes once the male drives away the intruder. The male finally offers the fish to the female before completing the courting and mating. The mated pair then begins nest building. The male continues to feed the female, probably to strengthen the bond between them. Terns mate for the breeding season. Both parents incubate the eggs and tend to the young chicks. I have noticed that, if another male approaches a paired female, she aggressively drives him a way.

One of my favorite places to watch these beautiful terns is about 70 miles from my home. With the sun rising at 5:15 a.m. these days, I have to leave home by 3:00 to get there before sunrise. In the last six weeks, I have often visited this beach to observe these birds and photograph them on their breeding grounds. So, I’ve had opportunities to witness least tern courtship rituals many times. Photographing them, however, wasn’t so easy. Most of the time, either the terns were facing away, or the light wasn’t ideal. 

Why this photo works

On this particular day, things lined up nicely. Terns typically use the sandbars or sandy shores away from their nesting area for mating. The pair landed on a part of the beach that is shaped like a letter S. With the sun rising behind me, I could lie down on the beach and slowly crawl up closer to a pair that was busy with their courtship without disturbing them. Unlike many previous occasions, they were nicely positioned parallel to me. 

I got extremely low, almost resting my camera and 600mm lens coupled with a 1.4x teleconverter on the sand. This low angle created a pleasingly blurred foreground and allowed me to include blue ocean and waves behind them and the sand bar beyond, adding the top brown band. I shot in a continuous mode allowing me to capture many positions, but this was my favorite. I loved the tender moment of the male exchanging the fish with the female. 

I also liked the beautiful lines created by body and wing positions of both birds and their crossed tails. The golden morning light illuminated the terns and helped separate them from their surroundings. So did the shallow depth of field and the band of blue ocean behind them. The out of focus sand at the top and bottom formed a sort of frame to keep the eye on the birds.

Technical Details

Sony A9II with a Sony 600mm f/4 GM and a 1.4x teleconverter (effectively giving me 840mm) at 1/1000 second, f/8, ISO 400. I cropped the photo about 20%

About me

Photo of Rajan Desai laying on the sand of a beach with his camera and telephoto lens.I got interested in photography when my uncle presented me with a simple point-and-shoot camera when I was just 15 years old. I have dabbled into landscape and travel photography since then. But I became serious about photography when I read the book Photography for the Joy of It by Freeman Patterson and then had a chance to meet him in person.

When my daughter was two years old, we put up a bird feeder in our backyard, which got me interested in birds and bird photography. Wildlife, especially birds, fascinate me. I completed Mass Audubon’s “Birder’s Certificate Program” to learn about birds, their habitat, migration patterns and more as I traveled to many places to photograph birds.

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Instagram: @aardee.photos
Flickr: Rajan Desai