Elegant Terns


Elegant Tern in flight

Terns at Bolsa Chica

Elegant Terns galore! In late spring and early summer, one of the birding spectacles in Southern California is the colony of terns at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, Orange County. The pretty estuary (as its name translates from Spanish) has been host to twelve species of terns, with Common, Royal, Caspian, Gull-billed, Black, breeding Black Skimmer, Forster’s, Least, and Elegant, and rarities Sooty, Sandwich, and Bridled.

The Elegant Terns Video

On a Sunday morning in mid-June, I witnessed more than 15 minutes of the spectacular scene in the video below. 30,000 to 40,000 pairs of Elegant Terns bred at Bolsa Chica this year. All of a sudden, most of them were in the air, resembling European Starlings in a murmuration. Watch how the terns seem to move in unison creating great swirling clouds. When I left, this stunning aerial ballet was still going on. Usually a marauding Peregrine Falcon or Northern Harrier instigates flights of terns like these. I scanned the sky above the terns but never did find one. That’s a good thing. No terns were harmed in the making of this video.

YouTube video


In years past, the berm where the terns are flying had oil rigs and power poles and lines supplying  power to the pumps. Peregrines often roosted on multiple poles, waiting to pick off a a tern or Snowy Plover chick. But now, the State of California has modified Bolsa Chica to open the back area to the ocean, thus improving the habitat. The power poles and oil rigs are gone. The sand is clean, and the nearest Peregrine Falcon roosts are almost a mile away. Northern Harriers are not present in June.

The Equipment

The video was taken with a micro 4/3 camera and telephoto zoom lens for the wider portions and digiscoped with the same camera mounted on a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with a TSN-DA10 adapter.