The Morning Show at Point Hudson | Field Notes

Gary Eduardo Perless
Posted 8/3/22

Dawn comes early, even now, a full month after Solstice. 

I roll out of bed at 4:45 a.m. — wakened by the gulls’ squawking outside my window — in order to get down to Point …

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The Morning Show at Point Hudson | Field Notes

A Caspian Tern is silhouetted during sunset.
A Caspian Tern is silhouetted during sunset.
Gary Perless photo

Dawn comes early, even now, a full month after Solstice. 

I roll out of bed at 4:45 a.m. — wakened by the gulls’ squawking outside my window — in order to get down to Point Hudson to catch “The Morning Show.” 

Still half asleep, I grab my camera and cup of tea, knowing it’s worth the effort. At this golden hour, humans are scarce, but in and over the water, the day is coming alive with a dance of otters, seals, diving ducks, swallows, and dozens of terns.

Haven’t heard of terns? Many people haven’t yet made their acquaintance with this fancy dancer, who might be mistaken for a gull — until you get a good look. Every summer the regal Caspian Tern makes an appearance here, having returned from winter wanderings on sunny, southern coastlines. Patrolling off Point Hudson’s fish-rich waters for fingerling-sized fish (salmon, perch, or other species), terns make graceful, samurai-quick maneuvers on their thin wings, culminating in a downward spiral and a headfirst plunge-dive into the water. Though not always successful, the tern shakes off the water, unflustered, and tries again. Eventually, a small fish is taken home to the nest, or shared on top of the rocky spit. 

Terns top my personal list of the most exciting birds to watch: Supremely graceful and dynamic in their flight, they wear a contrasty gray-and-white outfit with a black cap and bright red-orange bill (think tuxedo and lipstick, ready to turn heads out on the dance floor). Their harsh call won’t win any singing contests, but makes their presence easily known. As spectacular as the birds are, however, their large nesting colonies have not always been welcomed by their human neighbors.

A stinky problem

Our local colony of terns nesting on Rat Island (under the watchful eyes of the Indian Island Navy base) is likely one of several that splintered-off the much larger colony dispersed from the Columbia River estuary nearly 10 years ago (see link to article below). I spoke with a couple of Navy biologists to get the story, which I summarize here. 

Decades ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in an effort to keep the Columbia River shipping channel open, dumped tons of dredge spoils onto East Sand Island. The beefed-up sandy island soon became home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of both Caspian terns (7,400 breeding pairs) and Double-crested cormorants (about 15,000 pairs). These 45,000 parent birds and their young were eating “an estimated 20 percent of the juvenile salmon and steelhead that pass through the Columbia River estuary on their migration to the Pacific Ocean are eaten by these two species alone.”  

Although we know that dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have had a terrible impact on the salmon runs, fishermen seeing declining catches complained that the birds were eating too many young salmon, and demanded government action. Action was taken: The seabird colony on East Sand Island was “hazed,” or harassed. Some dispersed northward to the Puget Sound, showing a preference for Navy bases. 

Smaller colonies of terns reconstituted themselves on scattered islands throughout the Salish Sea (including a few pairs on Rat Island). Approximately 500 tern pairs have started nesting on several large graveled rooftops at the Kitsap Navy base, literally causing a big stink which led to headaches. Biologists there remedied the problem with a carrot-and-stick approach: By installing wire grids with flags on the rooftops, they discouraged nesting; and they enticed the birds to uninhabited Rat Island, using decoys (tern mannikins) and broadcasting mating calls on the island. It worked! Now, each summer, a couple hundred (my rough guess) terns return to Rat Island —coexisting with a thousand or more Glaucous-winged gulls who also nest there. The tern parent birds scrape out a shallow depression in the sand, line it with plant materials, and momma lays two to three buff-colored eggs in the nest. Within a  month, the eggs hatch, and in 37 days the young are fledged and leave the nest. It’s quite a spectacle, and worth the paddle over from Marrowstone. Enjoy the golden days of summer!

If you do go out to see the tern colony before they leave in August, remember to keep a respectful distance to avoid disturbing the nesting birds, and of course no unauthorized landings on Indian Island Navy base.  

“Our Lower Columbia River Bird Problem” published on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission website in 2014.

Wait, there's more

Learn more about terns at and of course visit the site of our local Audubon chapter,

(Gary Eduardo Perless is the education director with Admiralty Audubon Society. Contact him at