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Less than three days old, these tiny chicks peek out from the safety and warmth of their mother’s cozy wings.
It was the hatching time of nesting season for a bird species that is dear to me. Least Terns are the smallest tern in North America and are a species at risk in all the locations they are still found. Photographing them and raising awareness about them is something both challenging and rewarding to me as a nature photographer.
As I walked the length of the beach to get to the nesting colony, I quickly grew warm under the rapidly rising sun. I finally approached a small roped-off portion of the beach, set back not far from a thin but steady stream of beachcombers and joggers. Within this protected area were several Least Terns, lying on their nest scrapes in the sand. They seemed to still be incubating eggs, but I wasn’t entirely sure and needed to observe for a while. I settled myself outside the rope, quickly sitting down to be less threatening. I set up my tripod in a low position, and mounted a long telephoto lens to my camera. I began to look through my viewfinder, moving my lens from bird to bird. They were all at least 20 feet away from me. Suddenly, as I observed a tern who was facing away from me, something unusual caught my eye. It took my brain a moment to register what my eyes were seeing. There, under the tern’s wings, were two tiny pairs of eyes peering out at me. I realized that they were so young, they still retained their egg teeth. An egg tooth is the white protuberance on the tip of birds’ beaks (reptiles have them too!) that helps them chip out of the shell; these “teeth” fall off just a couple days after chicks hatch. This meant these tiny undercover observers were only days old! I was awestruck by this moment—the preciousness of these little beings, their safe refuge, and the incredible art of concealment. And I felt extremely fortunate to notice and photograph this fleeting view.
Many people have told me that when they first look at this image, before they can make out the chicks and the back of a tern, they see a “grumpy fish face”! I can see that now too when I look at it.
With threatened status in some of their range, endangered in others, these seabirds have two big challenges to survival. One is having adequate and secure land for nesting. They depend on sandy beaches for nesting—the same beaches people love to recreate on. These birds cannot build nests and nurture their young on the exact same stretch of beach being used by human beachgoers. Unless some area of beach is reserved for the birds, their survival is in jeopardy. The second challenge to their survival is predators of all kinds. Because they nest on the ground, Least Terns and especially their eggs and chicks, are vulnerable to attacks by cats, dogs, and other predators. Grant them some space on our beaches every spring and summer, keep dogs leashed or away altogether, avoid leaving trash and food that attracts gulls, raccoons, foxes, and other predators, and do not feed feral cats near colonies, are all important measures to assist Least Terns. It’s the least we can do to help these beautiful, struggling birds survive.
For me this photo and the surprise it reveals, captures both the wonder of nature, and the protectiveness and love of mothers of all kinds. A mother’s touch does not always involve hands, or even a kiss of sorts. The tender care these newly hatched birds are receiving can be felt, not only by them, but also by all of us seeing this moment in time.
About Untamed Photographer
Untamed Photographer is an online art gallery that brings together wildlife photography and stories from a range of international environmental artists, both emerging and established.
Structured as an online marketplace, Untamed Photographer offers a selection of handpicked, limited-edition works of art, alongside the photographers’ compelling stories of what occurred in the wild to get the shot. The exclusive limited-edition pieces are printed in Miami and come with an artist-signed certificate of authenticity from their respective worldwide locations.
The Nature Trust of the Americas (NTOTA) was founded with the mission to give back. While building awareness for NTOTA’s causes, the founders met talented nature photographers who are passionate not only about photography, but also about saving the planet. Their life’s work and stories are inspiring, and their art, passion and stories deserve to be shared on a platform that benefits the environmental causes they are dedicated to.
Just as the photographers preserve the beauty of the planet in their art, Untamed Photographer is dedicated to preserving the planet for the future. All profits from photographs go to Untamed Photographer's two pillars: the artists and causes that protect the environment, ecosystems, and wildlife.
About the Photographer: Melissa Groo
Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist with a passion for educating people about the marvels of the natural world. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. It is her mission to raise awareness and change minds about not only the extrinsic beauty of animals, but also their intrinsic worth.
Melissa is an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine, is a contributing editor to Audubon magazine, and advises National Audubon Society on photography content and ethics in bird photography.
In 2017, Melissa was awarded the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award by Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife, and their habitats. She also received NANPA's Vision Award, given to a photographer every 2 years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation, and education.
In 2020, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released "Bird Photography with Melissa Groo," an online masterclass in beginning bird photography. It comprises almost 40 videos featuring her instruction.
Melissa's association with the Lab goes back to when she worked in the Bioacoustics Research Department from 2000-2005 on elephant communication. She was a research assistant for scientist Katy Payne on The Elephant Listening Project, and spent field seasons in the rainforest of central Africa studying forest elephants in the wild, where she learned to listen deeply and watch closely.
Her photographs and articles have been published in numerous magazines including Smithsonian, Audubon, Outdoor Photographer, National Wildlife, Living Bird, and Natural History. Melissa has received awards and honorable mentions in national and international photography competitions. Her fine art prints are in personal and corporate collections, and have been exhibited in numerous private galleries as well as a number of public venues, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
About the Creator
I'm a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist. My goal is to document the lives, the beauty, and the necessity of all wild creatures. And to help them survive and thrive.